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Although Beethoven's 250th birthday is still ten months away, orchestras and classical concert series began falling over each other in bringing forth the birthday boy's music almost as soon as the clock struck midnight on December 31 – a scant two weeks after his 249th. Last weekend, Christopher Warren-Green led the Charlotte Symphony in their third Beethoven orchestral piece since the calendar flipped, the Symphony No. 8, after breaking out the Leonore Overture and the "Emperor" Concerto last month. Then, skipping over the Missa Solemnis and Symphonies 4 and 6 still remaining on this season's schedule, Warren-Green confided that next year's schedule will include three symphonies, three concerti, and an overture, stretching CSO's Beethoven birthday bash past December 17, until at least spring 2021. With that in mind, credit the Davidson College Concert Series with showing some restraint in waiting until mid-February to present "A Beethoven Celebration." Series artistic director Alan Black cryptically promised more Beethoven later this year before claiming the cellist's chair for a program of piano trios, including the highly-revered "Archduke" Trio No. 7. Joining Black at the Tyler-Tallman Hall in the Sloan Music Center were violinist John Fadial and pianist Phillip Bush.
A program of Beethoven piano trios offers the ripe opportunity for musicians to begin their celebration at the beginning – Op. 1, No. 1, in E-flat – and for Black to point out how much the composer would evolve from the Haydn disciple of 1795, when he wrote his first published work, to the pioneering master he had become 21 years later, when he published his Op. 97. Yet, in the opening Allegro, Bush showed us he was not necessarily playing along with the idea of sharply contrasting early and middle-period Beethoven, or he did when the musicians belatedly embarked on the same page. For some reason, Fadial hadn't absorbed the whole Op. 1, No. 1, concept and thought that the concert would begin with the B-flat Allegretto for piano trio – a gaffe that had Black doubled over in his chair with laughter.
Once members of the trio were literally on the same page, Bush was dominant in the Allegro, throwing himself into its Haydn-like playfulness and charm up in the treble yet almost always emphasizing the thrust and rigor of Beethoven's incipient maturity when he punctuated the placid surface with chords. Worries that Fadial had been chastened into submissive diffidence vanished when he took the lead in launching the Andante cantabile, and Black was equally persuasive repeating the theme as Fadial hovered above for awhile before swooping in to take over. Bush insinuated himself before seizing control, sometimes completely unaccompanied, only slightly foreboding in tone. Everybody played sweetly in this even-handed movement, even in handing the final notes back and forth.
Haydn held sway in the trio's performance of the Scherzo, for the players didn't adopt the faster pace that evokes Beethoven in, say, the Beaux Arts Trio recording, nor did they emphasize the abrupt shifts in dynamics that the Barenboim-Zukerman-Du Pre trio applied – at a tempo noticeably slower than the marked Allegro assai. Bush was the only player here who occasionally pointed us toward Beethoven's future. The mischievous opening bars of the Finale, recurring over and over at the marked Presto tempo, are the essence of jollity we find so abundantly in Haydn and Mozart – so far from the "Joy" Beethoven would ultimately redefine in his "Choral" Symphony. Handing the melody back and forth, Bush and the string players had a merry time with this music, and both Fadial and Black acquitted themselves well when they eventually had their opportunities to hold the reins at this galloping tempo. A few of the digressions that intervened as we approached the midpoint of the movement wafted in hints of the intensities Beethoven would sustain later in his career.
Though they didn't speak, the smiles exchanged between the string players said it plainly: now was time for the Allegretto. Once again, Bush resisted the urge to demonstrate a radical difference between Piano Trio No. 8, written in 1811, and the prior composition, emphasizing its prettiness and its waltzing 3/4 meter. Even when the string players drew perfunctory passes through the melody, Bush's piano accompaniment upstaged them.
Far more parity, resourcefulness, and expansive ambition were on display after intermission when the trio returned with the B-flat "Archduke." Accompanying the lovely theme of the opening Allegro moderato, Fadial and Black were noticeably more assertive here in responding to Bush's statements of the theme, dealing admirably with scoring that reflected the advances Beethoven had made in his string quartets. The violinist and then the cellist had opportunities to voice the themes on their own, and it was enjoyable to hear Bush fading from lead to accompaniment and then ramping up at the keyboard to partnership with the strings. Pizzicato interplay between Fadial and Black late in this movement was the most modernistic music we had heard thus far, and when we returned to the opening theme at the end, Bush proved that he had been holding its full majesty in reserve.
In the ensuing Scherzo, the trio took a lighter and more jocund attitude, de-emphasizing the tendency of the strings to lurk ominously behind the gamboling piano and suddenly pounce out of ambush. That somewhat passive line did not deter Bush from bearing down where the piano might have been startled by an ambuscade. Nor were we deprived of Beethoven's devious misdirection, the surprising sparseness near the end of the movement, and his depths. Like the middle Largo movement that gives the "Ghost" Piano Trio No. 5 its name, the slow Andante cantabile is the longest movement of the "Archduke." The first five or six notes, solemnly repeated over and over, inevitably transport me to Sabbath at my synagogue when the torah scrolls are returned to the ark. Bush played with gorgeous lyricism here, a true adoration of the melody, and the subsequent speed-up of the strings sounded inspired by the eloquence from the keyboard. The trio probed more deeply and achingly as the movement turned back toward reflection.
Without so much as a breath between movements, the trio brought on the jollity of the concluding Allegro moderato. Bush communicated all of its cascading merriment as he cruised along, Haydn and Mozart still in his rearview mirror, but he didn't hesitate when Beethoven's misdirection took the music off-road into a region of mystery. We were unmistakably on Beethoven turf thenceforward. Black was the more assertive of the string players during the turbulence that followed Bush's excursion as the trio fused busily together. The ride was bumpy to the end, slow and fast, soft then loud, with a brief episode that sounded like a rollicking cello sonata. Bush ultimately broke free from the roar of an equally-shared hubbub, taking over the driver's seat as they sped home. Yes, it felt like a celebration when we arrived.