Beethoven fares best in Chicago Ensemble’s mixed return to live music

Thu Feb 24, 2022 at 11:40 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Artistic director and pianist Gerald Rizzer led The Chicago Ensemble in a program of piano trios Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park.

After an all-virtual season in 2021, the Chicago Ensemble returned to in-person performance for its 45th season, with their opening program, heard at the University of Chicago’s International House on Sunday.

Throughout their long career on the concert scene, the ensemble has made a name for itself with creative programming, unearthing buried treasure in unlikely corners of the chamber repertoire. The remaining four concerts in the upcoming season will cleave to that winning formula.

But this season opener was all standard Classical-period fare with three piano trios, by Haydn (A-flat, Hob. XV:14), Mozart (E major, K. 542), and Beethoven (E flat, Op. 70, no. 2) respectively. The performers  were pianist and artistic director Gerald Rizzer, violinist Stephen Boe, and cellist Andrew Snow. (The Beethoven Trio marked a coming full circle, since the same piece was performed at the Chicago Ensemble’s premiere concert, 44 seasons ago.)

The group’s interpretations of unknown pieces are often charged with the thrill of discovery, for the musicians and audience alike. But their performances on Sunday afternoon suggest that they are not at their best in core repertoire.

All three performances were heavy-footed, with little of the gracefulness that Haydn and Mozart require. Entrance after entrance was poorly coordinated—particularly in faster movements—and phrasing from the strings was generally charmless.

The middle section of the Haydn trio’s slow movement features a highly ornamented piano solo over pizzicato chords yet even here neither violinist or cellist could land their pizzicatos together.

The first movement of the Mozart trio features a descending two-note figure that sounds like a sigh or a swoon in good performances. Boe’s rendition was curt and mechanical.

Snow was the biggest contributor to the ragged playing. Granted, the cello parts in the Haydn and Mozart trios are rather thankless, but Snow consistently rushed every fast passage, sometimes getting as much as half a beat ahead of the other musicians.

The best work was consistently from Rizzer. When the musicians started drifting too far apart, he adjusted his timing to realign himself with his colleagues—the sign of a seasoned collaborative musician.

Beethoven’s Trio in E flat provided the strongest performance of the afternoon, with the string players’ terse approach better suited to  Beethoven’s, as was Rizzer’s sturdy tone.

The slow movement is a set of double variations on a nimble major-key theme and a turbulent minor-key theme. All three players gave the latter the necessary drive, which provided effective contrast with the moments of repose.

Another oasis was the slow movement of the Mozart. In his spoken remarks, Rizzer described this movement as a gavotte. His spirited delivery of the opening theme was fittingly dance-like.

Hopefully, a return to rarities in the remainder of the season will find the Chicago Ensemble back on form.

The Chicago Ensemble will return to the International House and Fourth Presbyterian Church on March 27th and 29th respectively with werks featuring viola and clarinet by Hindemith, Beethoven, Karel Husa, and Bruch.

Posted in Performances

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