Bach, Mozart and Beethoven make up classical music's Holy Trinity, although aficionados argue passionately about ranking the composers as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Wherever you call them, each left a heavenly legacy for us mere mortals: soul-stirring music that reaches across time. And world-class players can bring the notes of dusty manuscript pages back to life with stunning vibrancy, as the Paris Piano Trio did in last Friday's all-Beethoven program in Montpelier.
In the Capital City Concerts' season opener at Montpelier's Unitarian Church, the PPT played four of the seven piano trios written by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). (Trios 1, 3, 4 and 5 were on Friday's program; Saturday night featured 2, 6 and 7.) Violinist Régis Pasquier, cellist Roland Pidoux and pianist Jean-Claude Pennetier have been performing and touring together since they were teens studying at Paris' National Conservatory. Now middle-aged professors at the same institute, they have forged a remarkable degree of musicianship and, well, harmony that comes from working closely together for so long.
Local concertgoers are familiar with the PPT because the musicians have appeared several times in recent years with the Vermont Mozart Festival, both as a group and as soloists. But the Unitarian Church was a much more intimate concert space, with far better acoustics than the summer fest's outdoor venues can offer.
The wooden pews and gently arched plaster ceiling provided an elegant backdrop for the sound cascading from Pennetier's fingers as they flashed across the Yamaha baby grand. And every nuance of the strings reverberated clearly in the church, from the most biting cut of the bow to the gentlest pluck of delicate pizzicato passages.
Hearing four selections from the same form was a revelation. For each, Beethoven distilled an entirely fresh variety of wine to fit the same shape of bottle, as it were. With just three instruments, the composer created mini-symphonies - each 20 to 30 minutes long - overflowing with ideas and energy.
The first, Trio No. 1 in E-flat Major (1795), showed how the composer was comfortable in the idiom of his idol Mozart and teacher Haydn, but was beginning to stretch beyond those roots. In the opening allegro, Pennetier asserted the charming melody energetically, and the strings responded with vigor. In contrast, the delicate, moving tune of the subsequent adagio featured gentle syncopations and sweet harmonies, the violin and cello moving in soft, easy thirds. For the concluding presto, the musicians were off to the 16th-note races, handling Beethoven's fireworks with aplomb.
Even in this early work, Beethoven exhibited phenomenal emotional breadth. In one piece, he experiments with how much he can do with just three instruments, melodically, rhythmically, harmonically and structurally. One of his favorite tricks is the false ending: building up to what seems like the end of a movement, and then going somewhere else. It shows both his wit - amazing in a musician going deaf by his early twenties - and his technical mastery.
The members of the PPT clearly delighted in Beethoven's challenges as they played. They rarely looked at one another during the performance, but rather smiled to themselves or narrowed their eyes as they leaned into the music. They seemed to feel tempo changes through physical movements and synchronize entrances with sharp inhalations of breath.
The program's final piece, Trio No. 5 in D Major (1808), showed Beethoven starting to flex the muscles of Romanticism. The opening allegro began in an almost violent torrent of sound, made more thrilling by the relatively close quarters of the church. The PPT played with intense focus. The drama escalated in the somber largo. Rumbling low figures in Pennetier's left hand sounded like clouds gathering at the edge of a stormy Scottish heath. Beethoven brought down the curtain on the dark Shakespearean portents with a fun-loving presto, exuberantly rendered by the PPT, who seemed energized - not exhausted - by their two hours of playing.
The concert had the edge-of-your seat excitement level you might expect at Higher Ground, rather than sitting in a church pew. And yet this middle-aged reviewer was a comparative "young whippersnapper" in the crowd. Beethoven made one hell of a Holy Ghost, and I think a lot of young folks would agree . . . if they'd dare to attend a concert and find out for themselves.