Arabella Ensemble – Lorenz Gamma, violin, Jennifer Langham, cello, Ming Tsu, piano – with Christian Steiner, piano play Beethoven, Piazzolla, and rarities by Debussy and Rebecca Clarke at Tannery Pond

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The Arabella Ensemble: Lorenz Gamma, violin; Jennifer Langham, cello; Ming Tsu, piano; with Christian Steiner.
The Arabella Ensemble: Lorenz Gamma, violin; Jennifer Langham, cello; Ming Tsu, piano; with Christian Steiner.

Tannery Pond Concerts, Saturday, September 3, 2011, 8 pm
Arabella Ensemble
Lorenz Gamma, violin, Jennifer Langham, cello, Ming Tsu, piano, with Christian Steiner, piano

Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Trio in E flat major Op. 1, No. 1
Claude Debussy – Piano Trio in G Major
Rebecca Clarke – Piano Trio
Astor Piazzolla – Four Seasons for Piano Trio

The penultimate concert of the 2011 season at Tannery Pond was not only the occasion of one of Artistic Director Christian Steiner’s appearances as pianist, but the visit of an impressive and rather fascinating group of musicians from Southern California, the Arabella Ensemble, consisting of Lorenz Gamma, violin, Jennifer Langham, cello, Ming Tsu, piano. Mr. Steiner has enjoyed a long friendship with Ms. Langham, and they have played together often over the years. Lorenz Gamma and Ming Tsu are husband and wife. The three musicians of the Arabella Ensemble have markedly different personalities. Ms. Tsu takes a rather understated approach in her music-making, but the clarity and definition of her understanding of the music she is playing command one’s interest from the start, and there is no danger of her receding into the background. The playing of her husband, Lorenz Gamma, reflects a carefully considered, analytical musicianship. His phrasing was consistently elegant and clearly articulated. Jennifer Langham, the most outgoing of the players, played with warmth and energy, often with pungent attacks, which never distracted from the flow of her line. She appeared to function as the leader of the group, not so much through active dominance as as its heart. Often she seemed to share the lead with Mr. Gamma through exchanged glances.

Even though the musicians seemed to inhabit different musical worlds, their playing as a group was entirely successful, as if Ms. Langham invited the couple into a warm domestic gathering, fueled by a heady punch of her own concoction, not that anyone lost his or her self-possession: there was a consciousness and poise to their interaction, which made the encounter all the more complex and interesting. There was absolutely no deficiency in their ensemble, which came from within, from their common projection of the musical phrases, rather than from any imposed discipline. Langham and Gamma’s common intonation led to a warm sound, rich in lively overtones. I found this unusual approach to ensemble thoroughly fascinating, stimulating, and engaging. They had their way of making the listener hang on every bar in the mostly unfamiliar repertory that made up their program. The trios of Debussy and Clarke were entirely new to me.

Christian Steiner took Ms. Tsu’s place for the Beethoven Trio in E Flat, the first work in the composer’s first publication, a set of three piano trios, published by subscription in 1795 with a dedication to Prince Lichnowsky, the leading musical patron of the time in Vienna, who later became one of Beethoven’s most important supporters. It is well known that the Elector in Bonn sent Beethoven to Vienna to study with Haydn in late 1792 and that the year they spent together as teacher and pupil was not a success. When Haydn left for London in early 1794, he turned his pupil over to Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, the Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, who, unlike Haydn, seems to have given him the more rigorous instruction he needed. At the same time, Beethoven set about making a mark for himself among the aristocratic music patrons of the musical capital of Europe. He achieved this through his virtuosity as a pianist, finding an enthusiastic welcome in most of the prominent musical households. After a year of performing, his first publication was intended to make a splash in this society. It is not surprising that he chose the piano trio, one of the most popular forms at the time, in which amateurs could join the professionals, in particular, Beethoven himself at the keyboard. It is thought that Beethoven may have begun the Opus No. 1 trios before his arrival in Vienna, although certain Haydnesque features, as well as their quality, suggest that he at least revised them later. Steiner, Gamma, and Langham gave the E Flat Trio a stylish and congenial reading after a brief period of stiffness, clearly due to nerves. The first movement exposition seemed to bring everyone into the work and put them at ease, and the rest was most involving and pleasurable.

Debussy and his fellow musicians for the premiere of his Piano Trio
Debussy and his fellow musicians for the premiere of his Piano Trio

The next work on the program was another early effort by an even younger composer, Claude Debussy’s Piano Trio in G Major, which he wrote in the summer of 1880, when, at the age of eighteen, he was employed by Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patron, to teach her children and to play duets with her during a summer tour of Switzerland, France, and Italy. It is striking to think that Tchaikovsky was not only still alive at the time, but was still early on in his maturity as a composer: 1880 was the year of the Second Piano Concerto, and the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Symphony were only two years behind him. One can only wonder what this summer employment by this notoriously intimidating patroness was like for the youth. Debussy’s Trio, in any case, bears no resemblance whatsoever to his later work, other than a certain sensuality. The work proved attractive enough and went over well with the audience, although it was ingratiating to a fault, and it soon became cloying, as if it were an overdone effort to please a lady patron. One could only think of potted palms and heavy perfume. The Arabella Ensemble deserve endless credit for keeping that effect at bay. They took the work seriously, as one should any sincere and competent effort at composition, articulated its motives with clarity, vigor, warmth, and a real enjoyment of its admittedly shallow beauties. One could not imagine a more effective presentation of this strange product of Debussy’s first creativity.

Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio seemed a far more substantial achievement. She wrote it at the relatively mature age of thirty-four, for Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s competition at her South Mountain Music Festival in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Clarke had met Coolidge in 1917, when she was visiting friends there. The acquaintance first led to Clarke’s Viola Sonata in 1919, which remains her best known work today, having tied for first prize in the competition. The Trio, in a close vote, came second after a piece by Ernest Bloch. Clarke, who was born at Harrow, of a German mother and an American father, was trained as a violinist and violist in London. She had dual American and British citizenship and travelled widely as a concert artist, including a tour of the British Empire. Her compositional activity was sporadic, tapering off later in life. Stranded in New York by the Second World War, she took employment as a nanny, later marrying an old friend from the Royal College of Music, James Friskin, and lapsing into obscurity up to the age of ninety.

Her Piano Trio in G Major begins in a Romantic vein, Moderato ma appassionato, full of the elegiac mood that prevailed in Britain following the Great War, with its thousands of casualties and its disastrous effect on Britain and her Empire. Passing military motifs underscore the reference. This continues on into the second movement, Andante ma semplice, and one can perhaps fault the work for insufficient contrast between the two opening movements. Nonetheless, the Arabella Ensemble’s fully committed and eloquent performance made the quality of Clarke’s writing more than clear. The Trio made for a satisfying centerpiece to the evening, and it is clear that Clarke’s music should be heard on concert programs with some regularity.

The concert closed with a rich, multipartite tango, “Four Seasons,” by Astor Piazzolla, whose music has become a fixture on chamber music programs. Piazzolla’s invention is constantly interesting and his expressive moodiness draws one into the music as more than a superficial level. This proved an ideal vehicle for the Arabella Ensemble’s affecting virtues: their playing was magnificent.

Unable to attend the final Tannery Pond concert, I had to accept this as a season finale—and a very fine one at that. I always enjoy Mr. Steiner’s playing, and I’m really taken with the unique musicianship of his West Coast friends. I can only hope that he will invite them back soon.

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