Review: Chicago Ensemble Resumes In-person Concerts, But in a Bad Way

Continuing its 45th season, the Chicago Ensemble resumed in-person concerts on Tuesday night. Headed by pianist Gerald Rizzer, for over four decades this group has offered delightful chamber music in programs spanning the ages. In a very atypical fashion, however, excellent music making was not on display on Tuesday night.

The setting at downtown Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church was carefully designed. Chairs were evenly spread six feet apart in the large concert hall, with a big space separating the audience from the performers onstage. All pandemic protocols were followed.

The program offered a tutorial on the development of the piano trio as a classical music art form. As with symphonies and string quartets, Joseph Haydn shepherded this form from its infancy. The 45 trios credited to Haydn were marketed as keyboard sonatas with violin and cello accompaniment. At first, harpsichord was the intended keyboard instrument, but the emerging piano soon took its place.

Toward the end of his composing career, Haydn gave the violin some independence in what by then had become piano trios, but the cello was still relegated to echoing the piano’s base line. This was the pattern found in the work performed on Tuesday night, Piano Trio in A-flat Major, from 1790. While not yet an equal to the piano, the violin does make significant contributions to the musical whole, as the cello still looks on.

In remarks before the performance, Rizzer lamented how Haydn’s trios have been largely ignored. I share his concern. Several Haydn trios are excellent, but I have only heard a few of them performed live. This was my first opportunity to witness this particular work.

Rizzer also noted how Haydn explored an unusual level of harmonic innovation and reached very remote keys from the home key of A-flat Major. While unusual harmonies frequently appear over Haydn’s long career, one might expect to find this level of harmonic variety in music Beethoven would write 15 years later.

The performance was enjoyable, but not great. Rizzer’s piano playing was quite good in this piano-heavy work. However, Stephen Boe on violin and Andrew Snow on cello lacked precision in phrasing and intonation, which was especially evident in the pizzicato portion of the Haydn slow movement, when they did not consistently pluck their strings simultaneously. However, Boe made his instrument sing when he had the leading role in that same movement.

The next work on the program, written by Haydn’s dear friend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, may have given Haydn some inspiration. In the five piano trios from his maturity, Mozart gave the violin greater significance, and, to some extent, the cello as well. Mozart’s Piano Trio in E-Major, K.542 from 1788 showed this clearly.

As with the Haydn, the performance of the Mozart was OK, but not great. Rizzer kept up the quality of the piano part, and Boe offered decent violin playing, although he missed a couple of runs. Snow also did rather well in the new freedom Mozart gave the cello, but toward the end of the Andante, his intonation left him. One thing missing was the vibrant aura that emerges whenever an ensemble gels. It just wasn’t there.

Even so, I was not in any way prepared for what was in store after the intermission. In considering the program, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70 no 2, is an example of perfection of the piano trio art form. In this and his earlier piano trios, Beethoven completed Haydn and Mozart’s efforts to make the violin and cello equal partners in the musical fabric.

This also happens to be my favorite Beethoven piano trio, and I always approach performances of music I know inside out with some trepidation. Will it be too fast or slow? Will the ensemble gel? Will the players miss notes? Will their blend be uneven? Will their intonation and phrasing be precise? Will they honor the composer’s request for repeats?

Unfortunately, on Tuesday night, the Chicago Ensemble’s performance of the Beethoven was bad from start to finish. Of the concerns expressed above, the only thing they got right was tempo. Each of the players had missed notes, imprecise phrasing, and unbalanced dynamics. However, the biggest challenge came from Boe, whose violin intonation was clearly flat from the opening notes. Things got better, though not great, after Boe tuned up for the third movement. Unfortunately, OK intonation does not mask sloppy playing.

As for gelling as an ensemble, I found myself wincing when the players scratched through climaxes on two different occasions in the finale. This is the only time I have ever felt relief that Beethoven’s repeats were not honored. (Neither, by the way, were Haydn’s.)

Having heard excellence from the Chicago Ensemble on several occasions, I must assume this performance was simply a bad night, or a matter of rust caused by a lengthy absence from in-person concerts. I am confident that they will soon restore the luster to their performance brilliance. They are too good musically to expect otherwise.

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Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.

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