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May 25, 2004

Mutter-Previn-Harrell Trio burst onto U.S. scene with works by the greats

When contrasting musical personalities join forces, the result is often mixed. Such seems to be the case with the newly formed Mutter-Previn-Harrell Trio, now making their debut U.S. tour. The antipodes of this group are pianist André Previn and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Previn—whose smaller stature mirrors his soft-spoken style on the piano—is surely the "passive-aggressive" of the group. And Mutter…let's just say Anne-Sophie Mutter has a stage-presence that is hard to miss even if one is not listening to the music. Indeed, one perhaps listens in spite of this presence.

There are two possible pitfalls of such a scenario. First, one becomes captivated more by the idiosyncrasies of the performers and distracted from what the piece being performed is "about." OK, this need not be a pitfall per se, but this was a concert with Beethoven and Brahms—and Mendelssohn, too. That being the case, I'll stick to my work-centered aesthetic, thank you very much. Second, the competing personalities of the performers simultaneously project two contrasting views of the work. Musical egoism gives the work split personalities. As a listener, one struggles to hear movements as wholes, instead hearing a woven texture (such that different versions of the same music come together, but only at times). Such a performance is, of course, at odds with the integration and coherence of character we usually value in works of composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, and…oh yeah, Mendelssohn, too. But here, the results—like the performers' conceptions of the music—were varied. Like any diverse democracy, sometimes they really missed, and at other times were mediocre or better. At some special points, they illuminated the musical surface and really said something. The result then (when one concentrates on what one enjoyed) was a concert of beautiful passages.

The Beethoven trio began rather uneventfully. The striking opening gesture—reminiscent of Mozart's C-minor Piano Concerto in its melodic, rhythmic, and dramatic rendition—was played as quickly and as blandly as one could imagine. After this rather poor start, the quality increased only marginally. The trio took the opening movements at a rather quick pace, giving the impression that they were eager to get through the score. Things took a turn for the better in the minuet, a quirky movement with several unexpected metric displacements that livened up the performance. Mutter's dramatic playing led in the last movement. Like the Brahms trio that followed, this piece is quite comfortable in the minor mode, and foreshadows the "C-minor mood" of Beethoven's more famous middle-period works.

After the rather incoherent performance of the early Beethoven trio, my expectations for the performance of Brahms's first piano trio were not high. Luckily, whereas the former trio seemed doomed from the first phrase, the opening of the latter was one of the evening's most beautiful moments. The beginning piano solo is a problematic passage: set in the lower register, the thick texture (three contrapuntal voices, one a strong pedal tone) would seem to invite the heavy-handedness of the stuffy Brahmsian "noble gesture," or, if one manages to avoid this, the feeling of rolling up one's sleeves to knead thick dough. The light touch applied by Previn, however, transformed this opening into the quiet rumbling of a brook. After this opening, the music swings toward a symphonic tutti—and here, Mutter's heroic playing style let us know that this work is only nominally "chamber music. " These two extremes served the opening movement well. It is one that begins surely and then is derailed, only to bounce forth, seeking closure both melodically and harmonically, and never quite achieving rest. The coda, which returns the music to the calm B-major that opened (but didn't close) it, seems a small consolation. Crashing, if hurried, forte chords bring the piece to a close.

Similarly, the second movement—an elfin dance gone awry—ends on a chord that eschews closure by fading into the distance. After a brief pause, the same chord appears the beginning of the slow third movement, with inverted weight. Once light and ephemeral, it is now heavy. This moment is similar to opening of the last movement of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata: We witness seemingly world-shattering steps, which move slowly and with the deepest profundity. The finale, however, again evades this temperament and is agitated throughout. At the end, the performance brilliantly illustrated how the wandering theme of the movement can go on forever—and can only be ended through sheer force.

In an odd programming choice, then, it was Mendelssohn's trio that occupied the second half of the concert. Most memorable in this work was the first movement's second theme, whose contour is a wonderful inversion of the dying fall that is the second theme in the corresponding movement of Brahms's trio. The ease with which this phrase was handled contrasts with the theme in the incredibly tormented last movement of the Brahms. The third movement was a humorous frolic, one enjoyed by both the performers and the audience. It seems that one of Mendelssohn's greatest achievements was that he captured Haydn's wit in extended musical forms. This otherwise boils down to the cute two-measure codetta, to which the educated concertgoer giggles in assent, "Yes, serious music can indeed be funny." The evening of beautiful passages was, fittingly, capped by an extended one: The trio played twice (in old-style encore practice) a Song without Words, the picturesque second movement, for piano trio. This beautiful movement has no other aspiration than to be the only tune one remembers after walking out of the concert hall, and remember it I shall.