All Things Strings: Montreal Chamber Music Festival: Bravo Beethoven

May 23, 2014

Montreal Chamber Music Festival: Bravo Beethoven

Thursday, May 22, 2014, St. George’s Anglican Church

Matt Haimovitz [credit: Stephanie Mackinnon]

Matt Haimovitz [credit: Stephanie Mackinnon]

It was billed as “Bravo Beethoven,” but it might just as well have been called “Bravo Denis Brott.” For even though the distinguished cellist, who founded the Montreal Chamber Music Festival 19 years ago and has since served as its heart and artistic director, was laid up at home with a bad cold, the music that was made at St. George’s Anglican Church on Thursday night was the ideal that Brott had envisaged: teamwork and technique, all combined into a series of performances that illuminated Beethoven with eloquent poetry and stunning beauty.

Throughout the evening, the phrasing was linked to a compelling musical flow in which violinist Giora Schmidt, violist Marcus Thompson, cellist Matt Haimovitz (subbing for Brott as if he had been the intended cellist all along), and pianist Angela Cheng explored the dimensions of the music with the kind of ensemble playing.          

Whether it was the Violin Sonata Op. 24 (”Spring”), the great Piano Trio, Op. 97 (”Archduke”); or the String Trio Op. 9 No.1, the sense of building the music from its component parts into moving statements of the abstract emotions that the composer excelled in was the primary motivating factor.

The Spring Sonata, which opened the concert, began slowly, but a few minutes into the slow movement it all came together as first Schmidt and then the miraculous Cheng started to feel the composer’s vibes. The Scherzo was a subtle delight and the vast last movement was absorbing and deeply moving—when the hymn of thanksgiving came at the end it was not just notes but authentic feeling.

The String Trio was a more youthfully unalloyed delight that found Schmidt, Thompson (artistic director of the Boston Chamber Music Society), and Haimovitz in the spirit of Beethoven, the young lion at the crossroads of his early triumphs and clearly already looking ahead toward future developments.

Despite the substantial viola and especially juicy cello parts, it was Schmidt who made sure that in music that can easily be distracted by excitement generated by pretty tunes and some extraordinary sonic experiments, the direction was firm and coherent—when the three finally corralled the rapid fire notes at the end, they were all brilliantly on the same page.

The Archduke was another animal altogether.

To a greater extent than any of his earlier piano trios, the three instruments play parts that are so equal in their dialog and so intimate in their relationships that only a very tightly controlled ensemble or one in which camaraderie prevails can bring out all the music’s glories. It was the latter road that Schmidt, Haimovitz, and Cheng took. Using moderate tempos that enhanced everything that happened in the music, the three virtuosos played so persuasively that the audience seemed to take one breath at the opening and hold it until the very end.

The night’s one misstep was the decision not to take the first movement repeats, understandably because of the program’s length and the weight of having to prepare at such short notice with a new cellist. In both the mature works, the Spring Sonata and the Archduke, this meant that the impact of the recapitulation, central to what Beethoven the architect had in mind, was considerably lessened.

In a sign of the times, both Schmidt and Haimovitz read their music from iPad devices. In the green room after the concert, Haimovitz (whose new recording of Beethoven’s complete music for cello and piano, using gut strings tuned down to 430 and with Christopher O’Reilly on a fortepiano, is due out in October) told me he will not play any other way. Using an iPad, he said, removes a physical and mental barrier between the musicians, the audience, and the music. And even when a published edition is not readily available for download, simply scanning the individual parts will do the trick.


Saturday night, the young Calidore Quartet will take center stage with music by Richard Strauss, Zemlinsky, and Brahms (the Sextet in G major, Op. 36).

By:  Laurence Vittes

Read at: All Things Strings 

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