One summer, during high school, I worked for an expatriate German music lover who lived on Long Island, NY. With help from his Pennsylvania Dutch wife, Frank handled dogs for a living, visiting A.K.C. championship shows. He also talked about — and listened to — music as much as he could. There was plenty to hear in NY then, live and on the radio, too; he had very few recordings because he didn't need them. He was given to reminiscing, as people of a certain age seemed, to these then-young ears, wont to do. In his homeland, as a teenager, he had "collected" the Beethoven symphonies, which he "amassed" by taking the train or in some cases walking to various nearby towns and villages where rare live performances were mounted. When he'd finally heard all nine, he felt his young life was complete.
There were some parallels for a teenager, growing up in NC at the time, although we didn't walk from town to town for concerts. There was the Met on the radio, and WPTF broadcast classical music on its new FM station several times a week. We had some good choirs in the region and our state orchestra and lots of college and university artists (including UNC pianist and teacher William S. Newman) and amateurs, too; there were concerts being offered by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and the Chamber Arts Society; and some of the world's greatest orchestras had begun appearing here, thanks to NC State's Friends of the College Series.... Still, it was easy enough to identify with Frank, and indeed it was years before we heard all the Beethoven symphonies here or even all the concerti, for that matter, and never mind all the violin sonatas or all the string quartets. Back then, if you wanted to get to know this music, you pretty much had to read music or rely on records.
Little has changed, although there's a lot less music in the public schools, and fewer and fewer people can play music for themselves, except by turning on the radio or putting on records or CDs. In addition, the flood of outstanding visiting orchestras has dwindled to a paltry trickle, leaving the field to mid-sized regional bands that seek to catapult themselves to importance with unending marketing hype about how great they are — or how great they want to be....
Through it all, however, there were recordings, and many would agree that reliance on them is not at all a bad thing. One can learn a lot by listening, and one can become familiar with vast amounts of repertory that way, thus preparing for those live performances that dot our cultural landscape.
And recordings can serve as calling cards for artists, too, helping them introduce themselves and their art to the public. Thus it was, back in 1999, while writing for Fanfare (in large measure, in order to expand my personal library), that I "discovered" the Abegg Trio, by means of their four CDs devoted to Beethoven's piano trios. These performances were revelations to me, thanks to the superior sound quality of the recordings, the astonishing sonority of the Bösendorfer piano used, the playing of these inspired and inspiring artists, and their interpretations, graced but never occluded by scholarship resulting from years and years of study and performance together.
This last bit may be among the Abegg Trio's most amazing and impressive qualities: for 31 years, the ensemble has performed, mostly in Europe, with never a change in personnel. As a result, the artists — pianist Gerrit Zitterbart, violinist Ulrich Beetz (whose instrument is by Nicholas Lupot, 1821), and cellist Birgit Erichson (Andrea Castagnieri, 1747) — really do "play as one," to borrow a phrase too often bandied about in connection with regional orchestral string sections and the like. Toss in the Abegg Trio's members' individual technical precision, their interpretive excellence, and their long study of these scores, and you've got something truly special. Beethoven's works have in a sense become the ensemble's calling card, for they've played the individual trios numerous times and given the entire cycle, in three or more substantial concerts, 27 times. (They also played these works all in the same day — once — in their 25th anniversary year!) And to state the obvious, if it hadn't been for recordings — CDs — chances are we would never have heard the Abegg Trio over here, in America, since we'd probably never have heard of them.
The Abegg Trio's Beethoven CDs were so remarkable that I started trying to interest chamber music presenters in bringing them to the United States to perform the cycle. But in 1999, there were two major obstacles: the closest Bösendorfer dealer was in Atlanta, too remote to haul one in for a concert; and the artists didn't have US management. They still don't, but their Canadian representative knows the US ropes. And Richard Ruggero now represents Bösendorfer pianos in Raleigh.
When the Abegg Trio performed here (and on the NC coast) the last time, in the spring of 2005, our critics were enthusiastic, so it was logical for the presenter, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, to seek a way to get them to come back to America. The die was cast when Duke Performances' Chamber Arts Society and the UNC Music Department's William S. Newman Artists Series agreed to join forces with the Guild to present the Abegg Trio's first full Beethoven cycle in America during the 2007 September Prelude — the Triangle-wide event that marks the real start of the season for chamber music enthusiasts in central North Carolina. (For the record, the Abegg Trio's NC debut took place 20 years ago, at the Reynolda House, in Winston-Salem.)
Thus it was with keen anticipation that we entered UNC's Memorial Hall on the evening of September 7 for the first of these three programs, offered as part of the William S. Newman Artists Series (named in memory of the aforementioned UNC pianist and scholar). On the stage was Carolina Performing Arts' Hamburg Steinway, a fine instrument. (An American Steinway was to be heard at Duke, and a glistening Bösendorfer figured in the final concert, in Raleigh.) The bill of fare in Chapel Hill was unusual in that all the works (including, as it turned out, the encore) were in E-flat: the Variations, Op. 44; the Piano Trios Nos. 1 (Op. 1/1) and 5 (Op. 70/2), and the rarely-heard single-movement Triosatz, Hess 48.
Newman Series coordinator and violinist Richard Luby offered welcoming remarks, and the audience clearly sensed how special was the moment as the artists came onto the stage, acknowledged the applause, and sat down to begin. In a nutshell, the Abegg Trio delivered, in every sense of the word, playing even more brilliantly and with even stronger ensemble than on their recordings. They also observed every sanctioned repeat, thus presenting Beethoven's music as it is not always heard.
Now a lot of water has gone over and through the dam since the Abegg Trio was last in Raleigh, for the musicians have embraced even more than before the "original instruments" movement, and they have made several CDs using historic instruments. (In the mill, indeed, are new recordings of all the Beethoven works for piano trio, including Op. 11 — in both clarinet and violin editions.) These forays into older performance practice have, in turn, informed the ensemble's playing on modern instruments, so the renditions heard in Chapel Hill were, if anything, more refined and often clearer and more cleanly articulated than on those CDs. This demonstrates once again a paramount quality that distinguishes the Abegg Trio from many of its peers: every time they take up a work, no matter how many times they've played it, they go over it as if they were performing it for the very first time. It keeps the music alive and fresh, of course — and it makes hearing the group worthwhile, since every performance possesses slightly different interpretive and technical nuances. Again and again the artists impressed with the beauty of their phrasing and their astonishing ability to match and seamlessly join violin and cello tone (to the point that as lines passed back and forth it was often impossible to tell, except by looking, which string instrument was being played).
Such was the case in Memorial Hall, as the September Prelude series got underway. It was an auspicious beginning, despite some serious problems with the impact of the ensemble in the large auditorium, surely exacerbated by the fact that the artists were fairly far back on the (foreshortened) stage and did not enjoy the added "thrust" that a small, directional shell would have provided. This was however both curse and blessing, for it obliged the audience to listen intently, perhaps even more intently than would otherwise have been the case. One could have heard pins drop during much of the concert — and the listening was richly rewarded as the visitors gave grandly shaded performances. To cite only two examples, the soft, slow movement of Op. 70/2 was, in a word, ethereal, and in contrast the finale of this trio exploded in the hall like a lightning bolt.
Alas however, as would be conclusively demonstrated during the other two concerts, Chapel Hill is, at the moment, in some difficulty with regard to acceptable performance spaces for chamber groups, for Memorial Hall, which is basically o.k. for orchestras and bands, is simply too big for small ensembles, and never mind how it looks when the typical Triangle chamber music audience is scattered throughout its 1,400 seats....
The following day brought a chamber music workshop for adult amateurs, coached by leading area professional musicians and capped by masterclasses with the Abegg Trio. Space doesn't permit a full discussion here, but I must note that a recurring theme, repeatedly articulated by all three visiting artists, was the concept of singing, an essential ingredient in superior performances of all kinds of music, instrumental as well as vocal!
Our coverage continues with follow-on reports from our colleagues Jeffrey Rossman and Martha A. Fawbush. Stay tuned for their updates on parts two and three of this special journey with the exceptional Abegg Trio.