Tuesday night was an unabashedly German evening at Sprague Hall. The Tetzlaff Trio played favorites such as Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C major and “Dumky,” Dvorak’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor during the first half of the program, followed by the 1889 revised version of Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B major. The Trio is German: The Tetzlaffs — Christian on violin and his sister Tanja on cello – are from Hamburg, and pianist Lars Vogt is from Düren near Cologne.
Given the casually excellent standard of performance that we’ve heard in the chamber music series this year, one’s opinion of the concert comes down to whether or not one likes Brahms. There are those who don’t. But those who do like Brahms love Brahms. I am of this latter category. A two-hour program played by a trio with a big, dark sound is pretty much everything I’m hoping for on a Tuesday night.
There were a couple of odd stutters early in the Dumky, and sometimes the piano’s forte tended toward the metallic. But these are small issues that were quickly fixed, and the group settled in for an outstanding second half. Balance is often tricky in piano trio performances: The modern grand piano has a powerful sound that can, without proper control, dominate the strings. In this performance, this was never an issue. The pianist was sensitive, but perhaps more important the strings ground out a huge, deep sound to match the striding Brahms sonorities every step of the way.
Despite the classic New Haven snow-sleet-rain combination, an enthusiastic audience turned out for the show. I sat next to a 85-year-old friend who was for many years a lector in German here, and she declared that though she may belong at home like other old folks on rainy evenings, she wasn’t going to miss this much Brahms in an evening. It’s funny but I agree. I have headphones and a computer. I could listen to the best trios in the history of western music or play any program I want any night of the week. And I wouldn’t even have to walk in the rain to do it. Why, then, was I in such a good mood to be sitting in the lower-left orchestra for a concert that might not even have turned out to be any good?
When you go to a live concert you forfeit control. You don’t get to choose the program. You don’t get to choose the performers. And you don’t get to stop time. When the musicians begin to play, they’re playing, and the moments don’t come back. If you’ve just walked into the hall and you’re still thinking about dinner, or homework, or a pretty girl, you’re not listening, and you’re missing the music. You can’t press ‘j’ to back up and hear the exposition again. It’s just gone.
Live music makes time relentless. When Christian Tetzlaff stops playing to turn the page, he has a finite number of beats before he has to start playing again. He might reach down, turn the page, fiddle with the frog of his bow, but when four measures have gone by, he needs to be ready again. What if he misses the page turn? Drops his bow? Spends too long on the fine-tuner? The music won’t stop for him — even if his pianist does. When the performers and the music are working together, you are deceived into thinking that they are one and the same. That what the performers play is the music. But that’s not really the case. The performers are trying to realize the music, sure, but it exists independently of them. When the violinist stops to make a page turn, the illusion of continuity is broken: You trip over the gap between the music as abstract ideal and music as that which is being played in front of you.
Brahms is beloved, when he is, for his rigorous form. To hear Brahms live is to hear an especially pointed attempt to realize in present time an essentially timeless formal ideal. It is awful that the music cares not at all about the people who play it: If we fail, it goes on anyway. But for that same reason it is wonderful. We can try and fail to play, and the music will always be there to try again. Its perfect indifference to our failings is a deep forgiveness. That’s perhaps why Brahms is stereotypically old people’s music. But that’s also why, on a rainy Tuesday night, I go sit with the old folks and listen.