Canadian friends pay tribute to birthday-boy Beethoven

Sat Dec 12, 2020 at 3:44 pm
The Gryphon Trio streamed a live Beethoven program from Ontario Friday night. Photo: Bo Huang

Candlelight Concert Society, like almost all classical music presenters in the area, canceled its in-person concerts this fall. The organization instead turned to a series of virtual presentations, and the latest, heard Friday night, was a concert by the Gryphon Trio. The evening was broadcast live from the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, Ontario. A small live audience was in attendance along with the maskless performers.

This esteemed piano trio from Canada is noted for the beauty of its Beethoven recordings. The concert was the second half of a two-evening performance of the composer’s best piano trios, in honor of his 250th birthday coming up December 17. This program combined the last three examples of the genre, the two trios of op. 70 and the masterful “Archduke.”

The members of the Gryphon Trio have been playing together for over a quarter century, and these performances had the feel of close friends revisiting favorite evenings together. The Trio in D Major, Op. 70, no. 1, was actually the first piece that the group ever played as an ensemble, according to pianist Jamie Parker. The music-making was comfortable and familiar rather than striking.

Intonation in the strings did not always agree perfectly, although the quality of the sound capture could be partially responsible for that impression. The eerie second movement, which reportedly inspired Carl Czerny to dub this trio the “Ghost,” felt more drab than hair-raising. The high point of the work was the bubbly third movement, becoming even more puckish in the fleet coda that concluded the trio.

The Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, Op. 70, no. 2, progressed along similar lines. The group excelled in the dance-like middle movements, with violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon and cellist Roman Borys at their most graceful in the second movement, a charming double-variations oscillating between C major and C minor. The sweet tune of the third movement likewise elicited fine playing from all three musicians, and the simple-hearted trio charmed even more.

Parker’s right hand created a pleasingly transparent filigree sound in the curlicues of the keyboard part in the first movement. The Finale was at its best in the delicate main thematic sections, but overplaying at louder dynamics created further havoc in intonation, especially at the top end of both violin and cello.

The last work, the Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 97, towers above the others as a score, and the Gryphon Trio brilliantly explored the piece’s gentle qualities. The three musicians struck perfect moderate tempos in the first three movements, and it pleased the ears to hear the piece amble rather than go for speed. The light passage in the development of the first movement, with pizzicato strings popping against the staccato piano, was especially delightful.

The second-movement Scherzo loped along easily, jocular in the main section and then almost humorously lugubrious in the contrapuntal trio, where chromatic lines slithered against one another. The third movement also unfolded at a tranquil pace, not too slow but setting a tempo that did not make the more active variations that followed too frantic.

In the Finale the Gryphon Trio didn’t quite come to full agreement on tempo, with the strings tending to speed through the happy-go-lucky main theme more than their pianist colleague. This decreased the contrast with the Presto concluding section and made the Piu Presto coda a little discombobulated, if still exciting.

For those who like talking along with their music, commentators Eric Friesen and Rob Kapilow filled up the 20-minute intermission. Friesen also held a post-concert question and answer session with the artists, dotted with some fun anecdotes.

Candlelight Concert Society presents the Borromeo String Quartet online in fugal works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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