Melody and spirit make up for hazardous moments
April 25, 2013
Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald
Mahler’s Piano Quartet movement in A minor is a short but intense student work, written at age 16, showing precocious gravitation towards tristesse and tragedy. Not yet present is the starkness of contrast to set this mood off against irony or terror, nor the genius for formal drama of his symphonies. The string players of the Morgenstern Trio established expressive earnestness right from the start, playing with smooth balance and good pitch until the violin cadenza.
In Beethoven’s Trio in E flat, Opus 70, No.2, their playing had commitment and moments of unfettered spirit, and the tempo of the first movement was persuasive, allowing for passages of grace. The second was more emphatic and less consistent, and from here until the interval the instrumental and tonal control was varied.
Ross Edwards’ Piano Trio is related to his Guitar Concerto, Arafura Dances, for the Darwin International Guitar Festival, and in the program for the Trio, Edwards wrote that he had in mind “sunlight sparkling on the Arafura Sea”. The Trio was written for the Melbourne Chamber Music Competition but sunlight sparkling on the Yarra sounds less probable. In pre-concert talk, Edwards was more candid, admitting that when writing the Trio he probably didn’t give the sparkling Arafura Sea a moment’s thought. The work features an expansive slow movement and closes with a dance-like finale in Edwards’ Maninya, ending abruptly, even prematurely.
For Schumann’s tautly scored, expansively structured Piano Quartet in E flat major, Opus 74, the trio was joined by violist Christopher Moore. The fleetness of the scherzo (the second movement) was not without hazards of ensemble, but Schumann’s melody had warmth and broad appeal.
Intense start for Morgenstern Trio
Mark Coughlan, The Australian
April 22, 2013
It was in music of brooding intensity that the Morgenstern Trio was most impressive in this opening concert of a national tour for Musica Viva.
This young, prize-winning, German piano trio came to prominence in the 2007 Melbourne Chamber Music Competition and has gone on to win accolades around the world. Joined by Australian violist Christopher Moore, the concert featured two works for piano trio and two for piano quartet.
The program began with Mahler’s only surviving chamber music piece; a piano quartet movement that seems to have sprung from the influence of Brahms and Schumann and is quite unlike the mature works for which he is known. A restrained but highly charged performance created a powerful impact, imbuing the music with an undercurrent of simmering restlessness.
Beethoven’s piano trio op 70 no 2 is an unusual and striking work and proved to be a perfect companion piece to the Mahler. The trio excelled in characterising its shifting personalities, playing with finely-honed ensemble and a keen sense of musical drama. The intimate moments were delivered with delicate finesse while the climaxes rang with symphonic grandeur.
After interval, the Piano Trio by Australian composer Ross Edwards seemed a little out of place in a program of 19th-century German romanticism. Perhaps sensing this anomaly, the trio performed the work in an overtly romantic style, creating a luscious sound world but, especially in the first movement, lacking some rhythmic precision. After a deeply expressive, beautifully played slow movement, the finale came across as somewhat unsatisfying, structurally and musically.
With Schumann’s grand piano quartet, the ensemble returned joyfully to their heartland repertoire. Smiling at each other in between movements, the players were clearly relishing this opulent, surging music. Tempos were on the brisk side but clarity and detail were never lost, especially in the quicksilver second movement where pianist Catherine Klipfel impressed with her agility and crisp touch.
There were times, however, when more tonal weight from the piano would have provided greater breadth to the overall sound and occasionally violinist Stefan Hempel under-projected his part, leaving some gaps in the texture. Both Moore and cellist Emanuel Wehse played with a fluid, warm tone, their sensitive lyricism used to great advantage in an understated but lyrically intense slow movement. A slightly unsettled yet highly spirited encore by Brahms was a fitting conclusion to this exciting performance.
Unanimity of thought and action
Neville Cohn, West Australian
22 April 2013
From first note to last, an account by the visiting Germany-based Morgenstern Trio and Australian violist Christopher Moore of Mahler’s one-movement Piano Quartet was presented with such understanding of mood and tonal colouring that it sounded more like a form of communion between musicians and composer than mere communication between players and audience.
This happens only very rarely and is all the more significant for that. As ever, on hearing this engaging music, one marvelled at the creative maturity of Mahler who wrote it while still a student in his mid-teens.
Such was the unanimity of thought and action in evidence throughout the evening, that one sensed that these extraordinarily gifted players were drawing on a shared musical consciousness. This was abundantly apparent, too, in Beethoven’s Trio in E flat, opus 70 no 2. Unlike the often athletic writing of opus 70 no 1 (the so-called “Ghost Trio”), opus 70 no 2 is couched in gently reflective, almost introverted, terms. Its subtle essence was captured by the players like a moth in the gentlest of hands. I savoured every moment.
More, perhaps, than any other Australian composer, Ross Edwards’ music bears so unmistakable a musical fingerprint, that its style is instantly recognisable. The Morgenstern players did his Piano Trio proud. In the opening allegretto, Emanuel Wehse’s cello line was like a stream of golden tone. The central meditative movement was a little miracle of expressive warmth that was a perfect lead-in to a finale informed by an insouciance that sounded right.
In 1842, Robert Schumann felt overshadowed by the increasing celebrity of his famous pianist wife, Clara. He sank into a deep depression, exacerbated by sessions of heavy drinking. Despite this, Schumann succeeded in producing a stream of inspired chamber music that year, including the Piano Quartet in E flat.
Notwithstanding some occasionally too-emphatic piano playing in the third movement, the musicians shaped to the music like finest claret to a goblet. I particularly admired the second movement and a scintillating, ultra-nimble finale that prompted a thoroughly deserved ovation.
This first-rate concert deserved a much bigger audience.
If he could meet any historical figure, Christopher Moore says, he would probably choose Richard Strauss, or perhaps Leonard Bernstein.
“I was reading about Mahler’s illness and death – they all had such sad lives! Beethoven must have been a very interesting character – the madness and sadness in his last letters. Perhaps Schumann was mad. Weren’t they all? They all had some spark of brilliance that made them a little bit different from everybody else. It’s just a shame that we never get to meet them.
“I’d love to have had the chance to play under Strauss, though anybody who conducted the way he did now would probably never get a gig. That kind of old-world, gentlemanly manner wouldn’t put bums on seats.
“The composer-conductor thing is pretty rare nowadays.”
Today’s audiences, says Moore, expect to be entertained. But that still leaves a lot of latitude for creative concert programming.
“There needs to be some sort of balance. Look at this programme here! There’s the Ross Edwards, there’s Mahler, Schumann and Beethoven. That’s quite a huge range.
“In the Australian Chamber Orchestra, we’ve included the music of Xenakis in concert programmes. And what I love about the audience reaction is that it’s incredibly polarising. Some people absolutely love it, and others vehemently hate it. But it doesn’t stop them from coming. And at least they’re talking about it. Whether you like it or not, it’s got something that burns an impression on your memory, even if you can’t remember the composer’s name.”
It’s not only hard-core modern repertoire that makes for a radical audience experience, Moore continues. Older repertoire also has its extremes; it is simply a matter of find a way to express that today.
“Even if you’re playing mainstream repertoire, you can find a way to say something through the music that really touches people,” he says.
“Toscanini said, ‘Tradition is the fading memory of the last bad performance.’
“I was recently given an old compilation of music for violin and piano. And if you look under the heading ‘Modern Composers’ you find Brahms and Massenet. It’s good to be reminded that back in their day they were modern composers. That’s the real challenge – to play all music as if it’s being heard for the first time.”
© Shirley Apthorp
The chamber music landscape is littered with piano trios and string quartets. Piano quartets, as a formation, do not feature. To turn a piano trio into a quartet you need a viola, which is where Christopher Moore comes in.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal violist is happy to be the missing link between the German-based Morgenstern Trio and Schumann and Mahler’s piano quartets.
“I haven’t actually done that much piano quartet repertoire,” Moore reflects. “I’ve played a lot of string quartets, but the piano is a different beast. You have to play in such a different way that it keeps you on your toes.”
Though he has not yet met the trio, Moore lauds the opportunities afforded by modern technology. You Tube has taken him into the Morgenstern’s rehearsal spaces and daily lives, and enabled him to watch them talk and play.
“I feel as if I know them already. They seem like a little family – they clearly know each other very well, and get along brilliantly. It will be a new experience for me, even though I’ve played in a number of piano quartets over the years, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
It is some time since Moore has played Schumann’s opus 47 Piano Quartet, and Mahler’s one-movement rarity is new to him.
“It’s great to play some repertoire that’s fresh for me,” he says.
“The romantic repertoire is where I feel the most comfortable – it seems intuitive to me – so I seldom find myself not having fun, especially with Schumann and Mahler, Strauss and Ravel.
“Mahler is a symphonic composer, and the piano can sound like an entire orchestra in the right hands – I guess that’s what Mahler is drawn to. And the Schumann – of course I love the music. I guess I’m a romantic at heart. But I don’t behave like one!”
Both assertions seem faintly surprising. How DOES a romantic behave?
“I dunno,” sighs Moore. “Sort of swoons around and sniffs the flowers, that sort of thing. But we don’t have time to do that in our lives. The only opportunity you get is when your imagination is swept away while you listen to or play this music. It gives you an opportunity to escape the real world for a while.
“Classical repertoire is pure joy, but romantic music is so much more multi-faceted. They’re pushing the boundaries with harmony and rhythm.”
© Shirley Apthorp
The Morgenstern Trio will be joined by Australian violist Christopher Moore for Mahler’s piano quartet, another rare work – in this case because the composer is known almost exclusively for his symphonic music.
“It is symphonic, and epic in length,” says Hempel. “It’s like an ocean, a long landscape. I think it’s a very strong piece.”
Also on the programme for Australia is Schumann’s piano quartet, a work the players say German concert organisers often shy away from for fear that audiences might find it too complex.
“It’s not played so often, but it’s an absolute masterpiece,” says Wehse. “I think the third movement is one of those examples of music as an incredible universal language, and everyone in the world will understand it immediately.”
The trio also looks forward to playing the music of Ross Edwards, whom Hempel encountered when he played in a New Zealand violin competition. It’s the kind of connection that the trio finds a normal part of what they consider to be an international identity.
“As a French person, I’ve spent a long time in Germany, and of course we play a lot of German music, but we’re also very happy to play French music,” says Klipfel.
“Of course my roots are somehow in Germany,” Wehse adds. “But I find it hard to think in national dimensions. I studied with a Korean guy. I don’t think music has borders. I don’t know if you could say we have a German sound. I would love it if people thought we had the Morgenstern sound!”
© Shirley Apthorp
From its student origins the Morgenstern Trio moved rapidly to a busy schedule of international touring. This season includes three US trips, one of them directly before their Australian stint.
The trio’s members balance out the intensity of the tours where they are together 24 hours a day with their stints at home, where they live in different German cities and travel to each other’s areas for working phases.
As we discuss their living arrangements, it emerges that Klipfel had married just three days earlier.
“Often I do spend more time with the trio than with my husband,” she admits. “Sometimes that’s difficult. But I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t follow my passion to play together and work on all the pieces we love – and to be on stage, to get this incredible experience, to play for a fantastic public. That’s my life.”
There is a ripple of agreement through the group.
Klipfel’s passion becomes doubly evident when the subject of the trio’s Australian repertoire emerges. On the programme is Beethoven’s 6th piano trio in E flat major, written around the same time as the composer’s much more famous ‘Ghost’ trio.
“Why is this trio not played more often?” she asks. “Because it’s unbelievable – so rich in ideas, with different colours, with this fantastic genius for composition.”
They came to the piece, Hempel explains, when they were performing a cycle of all of Beethoven’s trios.
“We discovered that this is the most miraculous piece,” Hempel says. “We hope we can show what originality it has, what a special piece it is.”
© Shirley Apthorp
A tortoiseshell cat, a pool of sunlight, a tangle of coffee-cups; the living-room where the Morgenstern Trio has been rehearsing in Germany’s Ruhr Valley has an atmosphere of cosy domesticity, and the group echos the mood. The harmony between the three young musicians is palpable, as are the flashes of pleasure they draw from each other’s observations.
The question of why they would name themselves for a German poet draws three different answers.
“He has been with me all my life, and I learned his poems at school,” explains cellist Emanuel Wehse. “In German the name has other meanings – it is also the morning star.”
Pianist Catherine Klipfel draws further parallels.
“I think it’s much more interesting to draw a name from a different art-form,” she says. “We always say music is a universal language, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. But the language of a poet like Morgenstern, which is so original, with so much humour and fantasy, is a good connection.”
Stefan Hempel, violinist, sees the matter with more pragmatism.
“You know how the LaSalle Quartet found its name? The leader was in a telephone box and he was told that they needed a name for the quartet immediately. And he looked out at the next street sign. It was LaSalle Street, so he said, ‘Oh, let’s say the LaSalle Quartet!’ Of course there’s an idea behind our name, but after all I think what is more important is what we do and what we make, how we play, not what we are called as a trio.”
Their trip to Melbourne’s international chamber music in 2007, just two years after the trio had formed at Essen’s Folkwang Acadademy, was part of the series of competition wins that launched the trio on its international career. But it was more than that, the group says.
“Melbourne was a very beautiful time for us,” recalls Klipfel. “We were encouraged, and we really enjoyed being there.”
“We played in many competitions afterwards, but Melbourne stayed really special because of the way the artists were treated,” adds Wehse. “We felt very appreciated even before we played; we were treated as something valuable. That’s not normal in competitions.”
So the trio is delighted to have been invited back to Australia by Musica Viva.
“Now we get to see all of the country!” Klipfel enthuses. “That’s fantastic.”
© Shirley Apthorp
The relationship is something between being like a colleague and a friend. Sometimes source of anger, mostly source of inspiration.
You spend a lot of time together. How important is it that members of a professional music group like each other?
There are some groups where the players obviously don’t like each other at all, but this is not our understanding of being a chamber music group. We are more than just the professional part in the lives of the others. At the hotel, we mostly take breakfast together, and like it.
What form of chamber music do you most enjoy?
The Piano trio is a wonderful combination of having the possibility to play as a soloist, but your partners are always with you, they inspire you and you are never alone. You have the possibility to bring out the whole world of the composers in this very special language.
Apart from playing spectacularly, what else is it about the three of you that makes the Morgenstern Trio work so well?
Hard to answer. All we do is trying to work as much as possible on the works to find a similar language, to find our language.
How did you choose the repertoire?
When Musica Viva gave us the idea of playing with Chris, we immediately thought about this wonderful masterpiece by Schumann. Mahler and Beethoven are also pieces we feel very close to. Especially Beethoven is one of our favourites (playing the whole cycle for the first time last year in Germany was so exciting!). The piece of Edwards we didn’t know before, that was a proposal from Musica Viva.
Do you ever suffer from stage fright?
We know this condition, but we try to transform it to a special concentration on stage. Sometimes it happens, for example last week we played the Beethoven Triple Concerto for Princess Astrid of Belgium.
Not only does every International Concert Season need to contain something surprising, it should also contain some performers new to our continent, or new to Musica Viva audiences.
Such musicians are likely to be young, energetic and highly motivated, and can be found this year in the Morgenstern Trio, which first visited Australia in 2007 as a newly-formed ensemble participating in the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. Since then the group’s stature has grown considerably, resulting in regular concert tours across much of the world.
As is common with young chamber groups, the trio’s members delight in each other’s company as much as in the beauty of the repertoire – a shared passion for the music reinforcing the sheer joy of performance. For this national concert tour the Morgensterns are joined by Australian violist Christopher Moore, who as Principal Viola with the Australian Chamber Orchestra has formidable experience in chamber music.
The trio’s players are delighted to champion Beethoven’s often-neglected sixth piano trio (op 72 no 2) which they consider a “most miraculous piece”, as well as adding to their repertoire the now classic Piano Trio composed in 1999 by Australia’s Ross Edwards.
By adding Moore to the mix we get to dip into the piano quartet archive, which gets aired only rarely in our International Concert Season. The program starts with Gustav Mahler’s only surviving foray into the chamber form – his Piano Quartet of 1876, written (at least in its first iteration) as a 16-year-old music student. In intriguing contrast, the program closes with Robert Schumann’s masterful piano quartet (op 47) written at the peak of his mature compositional power.
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