Chicago Ensemble closes season with Beethoven and Brahms

Wed May 30, 2018 at 12:52 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Chicago Ensemble performed Beethoven’s Op 1., no. 1 Piano Trio in E flat Tuesday night at Fourth Presbyterian Church.

“We have a very unusual program for you,” said Gerald Rizzer Tuesday night. “That is, it’s very unusual for The Chicago Ensemble.”

Rizzer’s Chicago Ensemble has made its mark on the crowded local music scene with a quirky and adventurous approach to programming—serving up European and, especially, American chamber repertory that is rarely, if ever, heard elsewhere.

In the final program of its 41st season at Fourth Presbyterian Church, The Chicago Ensemble offered two piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms—standard rep for most groups but for Rizzer’s mix-and-match TCE, a pair of trios by two celebrated German composers borders on weird.

Yet, despite his wry introduction, this past season’s Chicago Ensemble programming has been the most conservative in the chamber group’s recent history, largely centered on familiar European composers. Especially disappointing has been the lack of homegrown music, with just one work by an American composer performed this entire season. One hopes that in 2018-19 Rizzer will return to the kind of adventurous programming that has made The Chicago Ensemble concerts distinctive.

Beethoven’s first published work, the Piano Trio in E flat major, Op. 1, no.1, opened the concert. While outwardly adhering to the same tradition as Mozart and Haydn (briefly, Beethoven’s teacher), the 25-year-old composer was clearly pushing against the form’s boundaries: extending the structure, bringing rustic comedy to the scherzo and writing a dazzlingly virtuosic keyboard part, clearly meant to show off Beethoven’s skills as a performer as much as a composer.

Tuesday’s concert was something of a family affair with Rizzer joined by young violinist Alan Snow, playing alongside his father, cellist Andrew Snow, a longtime ensemble regular.

One would have liked a more gentle and inward response to the Adagio, which emerged as sturdy and literal rather than affecting. But there was lively playing and a fine sense of give and take between all three musicians; the younger Snow provided engaging violin work throughout, sweet of tone with judicious vibrato.

Despite the surface propriety, the tempo backflips and mercurial rhythm shifts in the Presto clearly gave notice that a young radical was shaking up the music world.  The fiery finale was thrown off with admirable verve and panache by all three musicians, with Rizzer superb in the freewheeling piano part.

Unlike the young Beethoven’s Opus 1 , the Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, completed in 1882, is a work of the middle-aged Brahms. His Op. 89 is reflective of the composer’s middle period, balancing moderately stormy drama with more relaxed lyricism. Like the composer’s Third  Symphony, which would come the following year, the subtle tempo shifts and somewhat equivocal nature of the score make it an interpretive challenge for musicians.

Those qualities seemed elusive in Tuesday night’s performance, which, in the early going, felt like a work in progress. The tricky tempos of the opening Allegro felt sluggish and awkwardly handled. While the movement’s climax was strongly pointed, the playing too often leaned toward the loud and garrulous, wanting in refined tone and expressive light and shade.

The performance was more in synch with the unsentimental reflection of the Andante; though there was a fitfully segmented quality to the variations, the Snows shone in the stringiest iteration with warm, nicely blended playing. Brahms stowed the trio’s finest melody in the middle of the Scherzo and here too they both gave melting tenderness to the lyrical theme.

Though there were some herky-jerky moments and fitful lack of polish along the way, the big-boned finale provided the requisite payoff, achieving a truly symphonic grandeur in the buildup to the coda. 

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at the University of Chicago’s International House.

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