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March 9, 2004

The Florestan Trio: Keeping romanticism alive

Contemporary musicians can sometimes seem like management consultants—extremely well trained, unsentimental, a little technocratic, reliable in method, and efficient in execution. These musicians, whether intellectuals or not, share a suspicion against overindulgent sentimentality. They mistrust the grand melodic line that sobs with vibrato; they feel uneasy dwelling too long in untainted beauty. They prefer their music to be transparent, purged of inscrutable Teutonic mysteries; they like their passages rough, and their staccatos sharp and witty. Across the board, they are impeccable examples of technical perfection.

I don't have anybody specific in mind here. Many of today's classical performers embody some of these characteristics, as did the Florestan Trio, making its appearance at Mandel Hall last Friday. Is this bad? I mean to say no such thing. But their name alone is revealing. Florestan is a character from Schumann's poetic imagination, along with Eusebius. Eusebius is the melancholy dreamer, forever welling in elegy. Florestan, however, is enthusiastic, life-affirming, optimistic, and a little wild; he is always looking on the bright side of things. Both are passionate and emotional but in their own ways. They are the yin and yang of romanticism: To understand what romanticism is, in Schumann and beyond, one must hold both sides together.

Another way of saying the same thing is that romanticism is not just a nostalgic, sentimental rejection of the disenchanted present (in favor of a glorious past filled with dwarfs, gnomes, elves, princesses, castles, and gods). It is a kind of worldly pantheism, an unrestrained embrace of the world in all its divine little details. Romanticism is not just mourning and melancholia. It is also, paradoxically, a grand celebration of life.

The Florestan Trio decisively emphasizes this last part. "A grand celebration of life"—these were the words that pianist Susan Tomes chose to describe Bedrich Smetana's first, and only, piano trio. It is not, as one might think, a gloomy contemplation of death and the fate of all living things. However, the quartet, on Smetana's own account, commemorates his little daughter Bedriska, who died of scarlet fever in 1855 at the age of four.

Commemorating death by celebrating life? This seems dubious. In pure optimism, there seems to be a forgetting rather than a remembering, a leaving behind rather than a working through. But this is not what Smetana does. Grief is not forgotten. Rather, melancholy and nostalgic sentiment are articulated and allowed to blossom, so that life can go on.

The piece begins with a grand, quivering monologue on the violin. This is a theme, which rather than moving forward, moans and groans, wallowing in its own pathos. It is then repeated with full accompaniment and brought to an early, heroic climax by the piano. Violinist Anthony Marwood—in my mind the most stunning of the three performers, with a style close to that of the great Gidon Kremer—set the tone right away with a swift tempo, minimal vibrato, and an air of laconic understatement. All the major interpretive choices were apparent right from the start, and Marwood's colleagues followed him unfailingly. This was not a performance for the sentimental and tender-minded; the melancholy passages, which Smetana introduces again and again, were always presented with a clear eye to their structural contexts. In places where I felt that just a little more indulgence could have produced gorgeous, glorious musical moments, the three life-celebrators refused to lose their cool, instead retaining the flow of the larger whole.

In their hands, what might have appeared to be mere musical carelessness resembled a well-considered aesthetic program. As such a program, it was not without risk. Some aspects of the music were given short shrift, and the Florestan players made no half-hearted attempt to be everything to everyone. But great musical works cannot be exhausted by a single performance or a single interpretive approach. Their performance was better for allowing the music to sound forth in this clear, determinate, unconventional way. They were at their best in moments like the coda to the exposition of the first movement. There, after an elegiac second theme, the music comes to a momentary stasis. Then, suddenly, a new rhythm emerges in the piano, a new momentum builds up, and the music is off to new heights. The Florestan Trio invited the audience to fly with them, and it was a magical moment. The finale, taken at break-neck speed and involving some serious virtuosity on the part of the pianist, was riveting.

The very same musical virtues were present in their performance of Schubert's E-flat major piano trio—one of the greatest and most awe-inspiring works from the whole range of chamber music. Here, the Florestan's ever-forward-looking interpretation had a major revelation. Take the second theme of the first movement. This is a lyrical and elegiac theme and is accompanied by a dance-like rhythm that pierces the theme as pins pierce a voodoo doll. This can become awkward after a while; how are these two disparate themes supposed to go together?

Musicians sometimes try to solve this problem by covering the dance, tempering the staccatos, and making the whole performance a little softer. Not so with the Florestan trio, who sharpened and accentuated the rhythm unrelentingly. This is the truth of the late Schubert: Those bound to death start dancing in despair, as Büchner's Woyzeck does after slaughtering the beautiful Marie. Just think of the last movement of the String Quintet—another such overwhelming devil's dance—where the two poles of romanticism, like the two poles of manic depression, become one and the same, leaving nothing further to be said and done.

The same insight was apparent in the slow second movement. Its cello theme is famous for its timeless beauty, and the movement is typical Schubert—a roller-coaster ride through the moods of living. Piercing chords, staccato on the piano, pizzicato on the strings, again accompany it. Taken at lamento speed, it becomes a funeral march, all about memory and the commemoration of the irretrievable.

But no, the Florestan Trio said: It is a march, straight and simple! This simple choice proved to be extraordinary. The theme emerged in an entirely new light, revealing itself to be about the tragedy of the living and not the peace of the dead. They explained how Schubert gets from this place to the subsequently amiable and charming section by establishing a simple continuity in phrasing and musical physiognomy. Their approach also explains why Schubert lets this theme reappear twice in the grand finale: When this theme returns, it sounds like a pale memory. The pacing rhythm is gone, and quiet, falling piano chords now provide the accompaniment. This makes for a carefully calculated impressionistic effect, as if the theme reappeared from a distance behind a half-transparent curtain. This is commemoration. Unfortunately, the Florestan Trio rushed through the music a little too swiftly to allow the difference to come into the fore.

But if a piece contains "all of music" (as cellist Richard Lester, quoting Nikolaus Harnoncourt, proclaimed of the Schubert trio), then we should not expect full enlightenment from a single performance. I believe that there is such a thing as a perfect performance—but never a definitive one. The Florestan Trio came close to perfection in their approach, and their artistic courage and technical mastery made this night a full success. And in case anyone was wondering, their Haydn was pretty excellent, too.