On the 100th anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars, three artists from ECU’s brilliant Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival gave the third of three performances of its second program of the season in Raleigh, at Hayes Barton Methodist Church. It was a very busy weekend, musically, in the Triangle, so the fact that the crowd was somewhat less substantial than usual need not discourage future attendance for these are major musical events, and we are richly blessed to have violinist and Four Seasons artistic director Ara Gregorian living and working in our midst – and we must of course consider Greenville an essential component of our cultural lives. His pals on this occasion are no less distinguished. Cellist Zvi Plesser has been heard hereabouts with considerable frequency, but perhaps never quite so favorably as in this present program, in which his instrument exuded radiance and warmth that seemed, to this listener at least, often breath-taking. Pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute has performed here before, too (and in Asheville, among other places), although it’s been a while since CVNC reviewed her – that loss is clearly ours, as she proved to be an ideal keyboard artist in a chamber music setting, never once overpowering either of her string partners during this magnificent program of music by Beethoven, Arno Babadjanian, and Dvořák – representing Germany, Armenia, and Bohemia, and in turn fulfilling the program’s “homeland” mandate in a sense.

Arno who? Well, he turned out to be the afternoon’s principal revelation. Armenian music is not well known here, and even geezerly record collectors would be hard-pressed to come up with more than a handful of composer names – an example would be Makar Grigori Yekmalyan, whose (abbreviated) Armenian mass was first issued years ago by Westminster (and is now in YouTube, of course, albeit in a different version). The chamber score presented in Raleigh is a Piano Trio in F-sharp minor, deftly introduced by Gregorian and also the subject of an ASU doctoral dissertation from several years ago by Artur Tumajyan that’s definitely worth a look if anyone wants more information about this rich and wonderful folk-music-drenched composition. And then there was the performance itself that dazzled and amazed and kept on giving from start to finish! One might sum it all up with a single word: Wow! (Otherwise there’s sort of a loss of words here, a rarity for this loquacious scribe.) Readers may hear it, in a recording by two great Soviets (Oistrakh and Knushevitsky) with the composer himself at the piano – click here – although that said, the live reading by the Four Seasons crowd was even more exciting.

The concert began with a Beethoven piano trio, but not just any old one. This one is Op. 11, in B-flat, and it’s a curious entry because it can be a straight piano trio – piano with violin and cello – or a trio with piano and clarinet and cello or a trio with piano and clarinet and bassoon (although that might actually be a little bit of a stretch). The piece fares well in Beethoven’s own version for piano and strings, and it fared exceptionally well in Raleigh, as the three players revealed its many delights with incisiveness and attention to all the many felicitous details. The finale is a set of nine variations on a theme from an opera by Joseph Weigl than had (as was often the case) become popular on its own and which thus drove the trio’s nickname, “Gassenhauer,” which refers to a tune that folks in Viennese lanes (streets) took up on their own. The song is long gone, but Beethoven preserved its incipit (“Before I go to work”) in an inscription on the title page of his score, continuing with “I must eat…” (as Gregorian explained).*

The finale was Dvořák’s best-known trio, the “Dumky,” which refers to songs in which sadness and gaiety alternate – we’d think in bipolar terms, or manic depression, were we to analyze this today. And why not? Those hairpin curves in the music command attention throughout, as one never knows when the mood will shift. The performance was stunning – perhaps the best yet heard here. It’s a shame more music lovers were not present, for this was music to love and to remember at least until Four Seasons returns to Raleigh, which will be in February. Check CVNC‘s calendar for details.

*BBC Magazine writer Robert Maycock is quoted online, amplifying this a bit more: “The story goes that this theme was chosen by an acquaintance, perhaps the clarinetist for whom Beethoven wrote the work. It was indeed popular, being the hit number from Joseph Weigl’s opera of the previous year, L ‘Amor marinaro. ‘Before I begin work,’ went the aria’s text, ‘I must have something to eat.’ A very Beethoven-like sentiment, you might think. Unfortunately he is said to have been unaware that the tune was Weigl’s until he had finished the variations. The discovery apparently made him extremely angry. Later he said he would replace the piece with a new finale, leaving the variations as a separate work, though he never got round to it.”