Beethoven in its bones: Faust-Queyras-Melnikov Trio at UVA’s Tuesday Evening Concert Series

Elite chamber music trio delivered a meaty performance of four of Beethoven's multi-movement compositions in Old Cabell Hall

When an elite chamber music trio has Beethoven in its bones, the ensemble apparently doesn’t need to spend most of their time together or even come up with a coherent name for the group.

Violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov. Photo by Marco Borggreve.
Violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov.
Photo by Marco Borggreve.

All the more significant is that the virtually no-name “Faust-Queyras-Melnikov Trio” produced a natural and extraordinary rendition of four very different Ludwig van Beethoven piano trios as anyone is likely to deliver in this 250th-anniversary “Beethoven Year.”

The concert took place as part of the Tuesday Evening Concert Series at the University of Virginia’s Old Cabell Hall. The international musicians performing were German violinist Isabelle Faust, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov.

Ordinarily, each of the three spends most of the year touring as a soloist. When they pull together as a “piano trio” (which, by definition, is one violin, one cello, and a piano), they’ve never bothered to attach a separate, catchy name to their ensemble. In fact, Karen Pellón, the executive director of the long-standing Tuesday Evening Concert Series, had to take extra steps to get the three musicians in the same spot on Earth – Charlottesville, Virginia – last Tuesday night to pull off the concert, helping the trio’s agent organize a tour of four U.S. cities this winter.

The trio played four of Beethoven’s discrete multi-movement compositions whose numbering includes some technical classical music language; many experts would tag the last of the four compositions as the most significant in the program. The piece is known as the “Ghost Trio” for its brooding middle movement, which may or may not have been sketched out for possible use in a Beethoven opera about Macbeth that never materialized. (What Beethoven “may or may not” have intended actually features in many of his compositions!)

What matters is that the middle movement contains what the program notes very aptly described as an “oft-repeated sinuous figure with a triplet [that] seems to have no firm destination.” The way each of the three musicians would sustain the figure every time it occurred without distorting or caricaturing it held the audience’s interest. The trick seemed to be not to overdo the pathos early in the movement with excessive vibrato or wailing in the violin and cello, and then let the tension build. The outer two movements of this D-major trio are entirely different, both up-tempo numbers the three pulled off with sheer professionalism.

Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Among the three musicians, perhaps the most notable in making a difference is Queyras. In some trios and string quartets, the cello stands out by trying to give the impression that the ensemble is built from the ground up, but that is not Queyras’ approach. Rather, his exceptionally even tone across the range of the instrument assures that lines never seem to appear and disappear the way other cellists in much chamber music can appear to be flickering in and out of the music.

The next piece worth noting was the first one the trio played, a very early trio Beethoven wrote when he was about 21 years old. (Yes, that would be “late” for Mozart, but very “early” for Beethoven, who didn’t even publish his first composition until around age 25.) This curious trio in E-flat major – which was published three years after Beethoven died, and for sticklers, is officially catalogued as “Without Opus #38” in the Beethoven catalog – carries the distinction that all three movements are in the same key.

The first movement has a constantly running line in the piano with commentary around it by the violin and cello. If you’re looking for the dark, stormy Beethoven, it never comes. The second movement is in the same key and continues in a triple-meter or “scherzo” form. In the third movement, interesting and of course flawless figurations starting in Melnikov’s piano part traveled outward to the string instruments for a pleasant, almost salon concert effect. But it’s a good thing that the composition lasts less than 15 minutes because the unvarying E-flat tonality –  despite occasional oscillations into minor and back to major again and also to some related keys – begins to grow tiring.

The rest of the concert’s first half was devoted to what in my judgment is one of Beethoven’s best chamber music compositions. It’s a four-movement trio catalogued as Opus 70, Number 2 and it’s one that the Faust-Queyras-Melnikov trio has recorded.

When the first movement gets going after a slow introduction, several of the themes work their way from the ground up, starting with the cello, but Queyras let the near-perfect acoustics of Old Cabell Hall take care of the sound without forcing or intonation problems. In the third movement, the two string instruments are called upon to sound like an entire string orchestra (or at least a quartet) via “double stops,” and the figurations Melnikov spun around them were magical.

The fourth and final movement of this trio was the closest thing to a tour de force in the concert. A happy-go-lucky romp in the home key of E-flat major, the three instruments alternately skitter around each other until they settle into a series of chords forming a winning tune; so much for the stern Beethoven who is supposedly always storming the heavens. Melnikov had a way of appearing to put forth very little excess energy in spinning figures all over the Steinway Model D concert grand piano that had been brought in from Washington for the concert. It was a nice touch, given how disturbingly often that the piano can appear to be dominating in piano trio concerts.

Finally, the trio played “14 Variations for Piano, Violin & Cello,” catalogued as opus 44. It took more than a century and a half after Beethoven’s death for musicologists to discover that Beethoven did not compose the original theme on which the 14 variations are based. Rather, Beethoven took the theme from Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s opera Das Rote Käppchen (“The Red Cap”). It’s another early composition (from a 22-year-old Beethoven) that’s a little academic in the way it takes a rather basic and not particularly memorable melody and plays games with it, especially on the piano. Not often heard, it was a useful addition to a meaty concert.

The Faust-Queyras-Melnikov Trio performed an all-Beethoven concert in the Tuesday Evening Concert Series on Tuesday, February 4, 2020, at Cabell Hall Auditorium on the campus of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. For the remainder of the TECS season series, go online.

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