The Morgenstern Trio: cellist Emanuel Wehse, violinist Stefan Hempel, and pianist Catherine Klipfel. Image courtesy of Morgenstern Trio.
The Friends of Chamber Music Kansas City was finally able to present its long-delayed first annual Beethoven Festival, featuring the Morgenstern Trio. Originally planned in conjunction with Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th anniversary during the 2020/2021 season, the experience was a warm, inviting exploration of this intimate chamber music genre.
Morgenstern Trio, of Germany, returned to Kansas City for a weekend of concerts, performed the entire catalog of Beethoven piano trios with a comfortable familiarity, exhibiting pronounced affection for each other and the repertoire. The ensemble is Catherine Klipfel, piano; Stefan Hempel, violin; and Emanuel Wehse, cello.
This two day festival at the 1900 Building included multiple concerts interspersed with panel discussions from scholars in both music and history, led by UMKC Conservatory professor emeritus Bill Everett (Everett also prepared scene-setting lectures for the Friends’ “Chamber Music Now” online series).
Contextualizing these works brings so much more to them than merely encountering them as abstract entities, offered as casual enjoyment for a few hours…Beethoven’s increasing deafness and curmudgeonly, antisocial behavior of his later career gets a lot of press, but throughout his early and mid career the threat of war loomed, the French invasion of Vienna affecting his health, finances, creativity, and personal safety. With those considerations swirling through my head, it made me more appreciative of the experience, feeling a kinship with those assembled, even the woman with jangly bracelets and the man scrolling on his phone.
Instead of programming the trios chronologically, each concert carried the arc of Beethoven’s development in the genre. Each opened with a trio from his Opus 1 and offered a taste of Beethoven’s evolution, ending with a later work.
Saturday evening’s performance began with the Piano Trio in G Major, Op. 1, No. 2, written after he’d settled in Vienna. Already gaining attention as a prodigious keyboard virtuoso, the three trios in his Op. 1 officially introduced Beethoven as an composer of formidable imagination to patrons of nobility and the general public alike.
The players did a beautiful job of heightening the contrasts throughout the work, with a wealth of emotions and flair. Little smiles from time to time helped connect these delightful moments: transitioning from sublime to bold to cheeky in the first movement, a gentle delicacy in the second (with a lovely dark timbre from piano and cello, the violin floating over top), energetic articulation in a bouncy cello line in the third, and figures leaping, racing between the voices in the fourth.
This concert included two enjoyable one-movement works on each half of the program: 14 Variations on “Das rote Käppchen” (“The Red Cap”), Op. 44 (though he actually started this one prior to the works included in Op.1), and Piano Trio in B-flat Major, WoO 39 (one of his later, if not last, works for piano trio). Both have a youthful vivacity, and it’s easy to see these appealing to amatuer and professional musicians alike, as many piano trios published at the time were intended for home performance enjoyment.
Op. 44 was a pleasant exploration on a tune by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, a contemporary of Franz Joseph Haydn’s and well respected composer of the era. From the pointed unison opening, their supportive playing gave the whole piece the nuance of personal expression from the trio. WoO. 39, dedicated to Beethoven’s 10-year-old student, was a sweet-sounding, youthful work.
The final piece, Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2, was a complete delight. Though it starts from a place of longing, it’s a rollicking good time. The second movement, contrasting from summer-like breezes to thunderous moments, the stomping piano line and passionate strings, was wonderful, the ominous downshifts in the third movement and inspiring excitement of the fourth, each voice with a shining moment, caused the duly appreciative audience’s impassioned applause.
Somewhat oddly, the entire concert was conducted without a word passing from stage to the audience, from either the ensemble or a representative of the presenting organization.
Perhaps salutations were offered at the Saturday afternoon’s concert, or omitted out of consideration for the extended conversations during the panel discussions, but a bit of personal background from the trio would have added nuance to their stellar performance.
Nevertheless, musically the performance was refined, personable (perhaps nothing more needed to be said) and impressive, especially within the context of the entire festival. Whether or not this becomes an annual event will be up to the Friends’ new incoming leadership, but there’s certainly a place for deep dives such as this within the Kansas City arts scene.
Reviewed Saturday March 5, 2022 at the 1900 Building. For more information visit www.chambermusic.org.