“Omigod. They’re playing without music.” That was the first thing a violin-playing friend of mine noticed at last Wednesday’s performance by the Jacques Thibaud Trio at the Sewanee Summer Music Center Festival. On the other hand, my first reaction was, “Where’s the piano?” You see, gentle reader, I was unalerted by advance publicity and was thus unaware that the full name of the group is the Jacques Thibaud String Trio. Taken together, these two reactions pretty well summed up the evening.
The Jacques Thibaud String Trio consists of Burkhard Maiss on violin, Philip Douvier on viola, and Uwe Hirt-Schmidt on cello. The group was founded in 1994 at the Berlin School of Art, and in 1996 they were the prize-winners at the Trapani Competition in Sicily. They have recorded for Radio Berlin and for Radio Free Berlin, and their recent appearance at Sewanee was part of an extensive American tour currently under way.
My friend’s surprise at the trio’s virtuosic audacity was pretty much confirmed in just the first few bars of the opening number, the op. 9 String Trio by Beethoven. Given the players’ youth, their aggressive attack and flexibility with ornaments marked them as better musicians than they had any right to be. This was especially true at the outset, with Maiss’ performance of the opening “Allegro con spirito.” His phrasing, especially his very suave approach to dynamics, seemed to be calculated to please the connoisseurs. Nor were his companions far behind.
For the first few pages of the movement, there was an exceptional robustness and a great flair to the performance. Then something happened that kept reoccurring throughout the evening: Maiss’ performance passed from suave to over-refined. He began to approach the music as if he were a soloist and not a member of a chamber ensemble. What’s more, Douvier or Hirt-Schmidt did not appear to share his individual approach to dynamic; as a result, Maiss’ attempts at building a phrase became inaudible when his playing dropped below a middling loudness.
In addition, Maiss began to have intonation problems at the ends of very florid passages. In good tempo, he would fire off a series of notes with a great deal of panacheexcept that half the notes would fall between the cracks, and the ending point would frequently be an entire whole step away from the note intended. My violin-playing companion attributed this to an over-wide vibrato, but it just sounded like sloppy showboating to me.
Throughout this display of independence, the true hero was violist Douvier. In the Beethoven, Douvier seemed to be constantly pulling his violinist back to the reality of ensemble playing, sometimes making his approach conform to what Maiss was attempting while also trying to bring the trio’s focus closer to the spirit of the music. This is not to say that Douvier’s approach was in any way pedestrian. Throughout the evening, his points in the musical argument were the most salient, and his control was the steadiest. Although he displayed a few lapses in intonation during the Reger String Trio, and he appeared to be tiring by the fourth of the six movements in the Mozart, I still think he displayed the best musicianship of the evening.
As to the cello work of Hirth-Schmidt, it was pretty hard, with this repertoire, to get a good sense of his abilities. There were some very euphonious moments at the end of the first movement in Reger’s A Minor Piano Trio, and he contributed some fine playing in the first and second movements of the Mozart Divertimento, K. 563great trills in the first movement and beautiful cantante playing in the second movement. But he just didn’t have as many chances to shine as his fellow musicians. Even so, it was very obvious throughout that he brought a steadiness to the proceedings. When you’re called upon to be a team playerand that was very much the focus of the cello parts hereit’s a flaw to be a star.
I mentioned my disappointment that this music was for string trio and not for the more standard piano triowhich meant the audience had to hear some fairly unspectacular pieces. The Beethoven and Mozart are not in either composer’s great list of works, and I have a strong antipathy toward almost anything unleashed by Reger on innocent concert-goers. The Beethoven is an early work, and though it had its moments, it is not blessed with melody, structure, or virtuosity that command concert performance; it seemed like an extended teaching piece. The Mozart is, quite frankly, over-long, and it was made even more so by the scrupulous observance of repeats. Each movement seemed to last foreverand the whole piece was two movements too long. As to the Reger, it’s filled with inflated salon-music material that a composer like Prokofiev might have managed to turn into wry irony. Under Reger’s baleful pen, it’s the aural equivalent of Alka-Seltzer’s heart-shaped meat loaf.
I suppose that I truly expected too much from the Thibaud folks. They are still very young, and their sound is still in the process of coming together. I would urge them to seek out more colorful scores and to work toward a tighter ensemble. By all means, they should build on their formidable technical prowessdespite the problems that I had with Burkhard Maiss’ playing, it’s clear he has technique to burn. I would urge that they construct programs that give each member of the group a strong chance to shine. At the same time, they should remember that stars that shine too brightly literally explode into super-novae.
The Sewanee Music Festival continues this week with an interesting offering by faculty performersthe music of Sarasate, Shostakovich, and Martin on July 16, and an 8 p.m. performance by the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble on July 19. I’m already getting the oil changed in my truck for the trip up the mountain. I bet the performances will have a virtuosic audacity. I bet they will be more than I expected.