The Aspen String Trio


Masterful Beethoven, Mozart from Aspen Trio at Flagler
January 26, 2015
By Rex Hearn, Palm Beach Arts Paper

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Taking their name from the famous summer arts festival where they meet every year in Aspen, Colo., the Aspen String Trio is made up of David Perry, playing a 1711 Venetian Gobetti violin; Victoria Chiang, on a 1996 Paris viola specially made for her; and Michael Mermagen, with a 1774 Galliano cello — which was stolen from his car parked on 67th Street in New York City.

The police told Mermagen to go to the pawnshops first thing next day. After stopping at a dozen or so, he was quietly filling in a form in the corner of the last shop when in walked the thief with his cello. Knowing the story, the owner winked at Mermagen, took the cello behind the counter and offered the thief $50, saying it wasn’t much good. In fact it was worth nearly $1 million.

In this second concert of Flagler Museum’s music series this past Tuesday, the Aspen Trio played works by Richard Strauss, Beethoven and Mozart. Chiang and Mermagen live in Baltimore, and Perry is from Wisconsin, where he also plays with the Pro Arte String Quartet.

Observing so many trios and quartets over the years, I believe it’s safe to make the observation that the older the instruments, the better the sound. The Aspen’s rich tones and fine playing techniques owe much to their centuries-old fiddle and cello.

The trio began with a short work by Richard Strauss called Variations on a Bavarian Folk Song, written when he was 18 in 1882 . It wasn’t discovered until 1996. Thought to be about a girl he was dating it, bears the subhead, “My girlfriend is cross with me.” Back in 1882, it must have been regarded with amusement when it was first heard in Munich at a Pschorr family concert at the home of Strauss’ mother’s relations. Amusing or not, it comes across as very mature music, with homophonic writing, stylistic innovations and intricate technical passages for the violin.

The String Trio No. 3 (in G major, Op. 9, No. 1) by Beethoven followed the Strauss warmup. It is dedicated to Count and Countess von Browne-Camus, who as governor-general of Lithuania and Estonia was an immense landowner in the Baltic who served the Russian Imperial Service in Vienna. Wealthy beyond measure, he supported Beethoven and Haydn before him; a form of noblesse oblige our modern-day computer tycoons may one day imitate.

The string trios marked a new development and a new direction in which Beethoven freed himself from reliance on the piano as anchor to his compositional style. It is also believed these Op. 9 trios functioned as a transition to the quartet form, since he never returned to writing trios.

The slow introduction is typical Beethoven; unmistakable open octaves, intricately written and masterfully played. After the development, the quiet passages that follow are sublime. A lively four-note theme is introduced. It is regularly repeated by the violin, only to be answered by the viola. The second movement, marked Adagio, ma non tanto e cantabile, has just that, a singing violin, eloquently played by David Perry. The cello has some lovely busy scales, which show the superb depth of the 1774 Galliano masterpiece, made two years before our independence.

The violin picks up the cello’s scales, then it’s back to the singing opening for him; lovely, sweet music with warm feathery trills ends this part. One senses Beethoven is taking great pleasure in composing this trio. The Scherzo, with hints of the minuet form, is more like a walk in the country. Birds seem to be chattering away in the hedgerows, distant church bells are ringing the faithful to prayer as each player’s delineated scales sound out their songs.

The finale, marked Presto, is indeed a whirlwind of perpetual motion. Harmonically, the trio kept time as one with some beautiful playing. In sonata form the musical themes are brilliantly developed and recapitulated: tense concentration is evident in very difficult passages as the coda sweeps the work to its end. The performance and the trio were met by warm applause from a near-to-capacity full house.

Mozart’s Divertimento for Violin, Viola and Cello (in E-flat, K. 563) came after the intermission. “Divertimento” was a term used by Austrian composers of the classical period to describe an easygoing work of five to nine movements.

He wrote it in the summer of 1788, just after completing his last three symphonies. The trio is dedicated to his Mozart’s Freemason brother, Michael Puchberg, a merchant and amateur musician who helped Mozart with generous loans until the composer’s death from kidney failure three years later.

Six movements make up this divertimento. It’s the work of a very accomplished composer of 32 at the height of his powers. The opening Allegro is cheerful and majestic, with lots of descending arpeggios giving shape to the whole. The violin and viola play one tune in harmony, which makes a magnificent anchor to all the exciting music built around it.

The Adagio has the cello playing ascending arpeggios seemingly always reaching upward, beautifully played by Michael Mermagen. The Allegro is vigorous with a smooth central trio. A new tune is presented by the viola, then the violin. So many new tunes tumble out it’s hard to keep count.

The Andante is a walking tune based on a popular song of the day that Mozart borrowed. The trio played with abandon here, obviously relaxed in these less structured plodding passages. The fifth movement, Allegretto, is light in character with two contrasting trio forms in the shape of an Austrian peasant dance. Last, a jolly rondo, concludes the piece with a seven-note theme and fugue passed around nicely by all three musicians.

Perry’s playing of this lovely lilting music was magnificent throughout. Imagine; any of these tunes could have ended up in any one of his last three operas — Così fan Tutte, The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito — Mozart rarely borrowed familiar tunes from himself. A standing ovation and three callbacks led to an encore: more Op. 9 Beethoven, this time from the C minor trio (Op. 9, No. 3).