The ATOS Trio
@ the Unitarian Universalist Church, Asheville
Friday, November 1, 2019
Review by Don Howland
Beethoven: Piano Trio No. 6 in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67
The Asheville Chamber Music Series presented the German ATOS Trio’s performance at the Unitarian Universalist church in north Asheville two nights after game 7 of a great World Series. While I acknowledge that pro and college sports in America were long ago poisoned by money-lust and are pale reflections of what they once meant to American society, there is still something about baseball – and especially baseball in October – that lures me in. With the Washington Nationals’ improbable victory in that Series still fresh in my mind, it occurred to me, as I sat there in the quasi-church, that baseball is to other sports as “classical” music is to other musics. Which is to say, different, and different in profound ways.
There are some base commonalities: baseball and classical music have – relatively – ancient roots and are – according to the long articles that appear with tedious regularity – struggling to survive in the 21st century; these articles inevitably cite TV ratings and record sales, respectively, in making their pointless cases. (“Pointless” because neither is in any danger of fading away any time soon.) Then there are the more involved likenesses: Baseball and classical music require a precision and focus that simply are not required in other sports or musical genres respectively; not to sound snobbish, but they require intelligence. Hype, accordingly, doesn’t really work in baseball or classical music. You have to actually be good to be considered good.
Then there are the profound factors that set them apart entirely. For example, baseball, alone among team sports, has no time clock, which leaves the nearly impossible possible at all times.
Alone among musical forms, in “classical” music the musician is given a very detailed and intricate blueprint of the piece that is being performed, a blueprint that is the result of a process that considered and discarded hundreds of less-than-best ideas. The musician, depending upon her familiarity with the piece, may read the blueprints while she’s playing; artistry is evaluated in terms of her interpretation of the blueprint. Those are HUGE differences…
The ATOS Trio’s name sounds Greek, but as pianist Thomas Hoppe explained in his introduction, it is merely a play on the first names of the performers: the A is for violinist Annette von Hehn, and the S for cellist Stefan Heinemeyer, and the T and O from his own moniker. (Hoppe mentioned that they had jettisoned the intervening H in Thomas, since Athos was, in Greek mythology, the inadvertent creator of Mt. Athos, today a holy site that bans the presence of women – a policy that did not jibe with the coed trio.) Laid-back and affable, Hoppe’s opening remarks allowed me to set aside my broader anti-German bias for the rest of the evening.
The first half of the concert was piano trios by Beethoven and Mendelsohn. That was not why I was there; I was there for the Shostakovich. I will say this, however: henceforth I will not avoid (or duck out of) concert performances by composers whose music is outside my orbit. During the last WSFM fund drive, my pitch partner Greg Lyon (host of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, an excellent freeform show on Friday afternoons, 3-5 pm) asked me, rhetorically, whether classical music wasn’t always better in a live concert setting. My response was, I’m not sure. Music detached from physical setting is like a parallel universe, a non-substantial landscape where I can hide out. But watching the ATOS Trio perform the intricate turns and dynamics of the music was fascinating, sort of like watching acrobats.
After the cookies and cider intermission, the trio returned and Hoppe announced, in his genial way, that given the gravity of the Shostakovich piece, they would not be performing an encore afterwards. That was a totally cool move in my book. The Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 is a towering work, and one of two pieces I’d recommend off the top of my head to anybody in the “classical-curious” demographic.* This is one piece I have multiple versions of, versions I appreciate for some unique aspect or other, so please allow any hints of nerdishiness. Going into this show, I’d have listed as my favorites renditions by the Borodin Trio and the all-star lineup of Martha Argerich, Gidon Kremer and Mischa Maisky.
I know that for the Beethoven/Mozart/yada-yada crowd, the name Shostakovich is anathematic, shorthand for “difficult,” but the Trio No. 2 is super accessible. That accessibility, though, masks daring complexity and requires virtuosity from its players. I had been lucky (though it did not feel lucky at the time) last winter when I was visiting a northern city and attended a free lecture on Soviet propaganda posters at the city’s art museum. After the lecture, some musicians from the city’s symphony performed Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 for the attendees. In the hands of an under- or unrehearsed trio, that complexity was glaringly apparent. If you ever drank flat Sprite, it was sort of like that.
I’d downloaded and listened to the ATOS Trio’s version a few times prior to the Asheville show, but was not entirely sold on it. It seemed tentative, especially at the outset, at least relative to what I was used to. This live performance, though, confirmed the approach is a winner: I’d mistaken contemplative for tentative. The ATOS Trio is deep into this music.
The first ten minutes glided by, but then towards the end of the second movement the E string on Heinemeyer’s cello unraveled. It had never occurred to me that could happen in a classical show. The second movement is the one of the four I don’t know more or less by heart, but it seemed to me like Heinemeyer got through the movement without any noticeable difficulty. At that point, though, he had to go “backstage” (there’s not a stage per se at the UU church in the first place) to swap out a new one. That left Hoppe and von Hehn sitting there. Undoubtedly, the ATOS Trio’s respect for the Shostakovich piece precluded filling the interval with small talk or a quick movement from a violin sonata. It’s not like the crowd – I’d guess 95% AARPers – was getting ugly, but after ten minutes or so – right about the time I began to wonder if Heinemeyer had a replacement string at all – Hoppe started to tell the crowd about the individual instruments they were playing. Heinemeyer returned before we got the backstory on his cello.
The break was a mini-halftime, no biggie. Lucky, too, because had the string unwound in the next movement, the trio would, I suspect, have been forced to take a mulligan and do over. The third and fourth movements of the Shostakovich Trio are, in effect, a piece unto themselves, as the third – containing some of the most beautiful and wistful music Shostakovich ever wrote – segues without pause into the terse and driving fourth and final movement, a powerful effect when handled as adeptly as the ATOS Trio nailed it a few minutes later.
I could tell you, in my clumsy lay way, about how the Shostakovich trio winds up in a very deliberate, manic state, driven by melodies that lock in the brain. Or you could watch them play it on the YouTube video here:
Like many of the memorable melodies in Shostakovich’s subsequent great works, these tunes are derived, indirectly at least, from klezmer music; the ATOS Trio made that fact plain. Assured and comfortable, they might have been playing a pre-Nazi Warsaw dancehall on Friday night: Booming piano, hard-snapped pizzicatos and sly, soaring sawing on the strings. They understood every aspect of what Shostakovich was going for, I’d say. It could not have been better. It was perfect.
After a well-deserved, if de rigueur, standing ovation, I rushed out to congratulate Hoppe (since I knew his English was excellent). I told him how much I loved the Shostakovich trio, and his face lit up. “There’s so much drama in it!” he beamed. I told him I thought they totally killed it, which seemed to be some slang he had not encountered before. I was about to say it was cool to see a German trio with such a deep understanding of Shostakovich, since Shostakovich wrote the piece while Nazis laid siege to his home city of Leningrad, but I caught myself. Hoppe said the trio’s next mission would likely be the 1945 piano trio of Mieczysław Weinberg, the Polish Jew whose friendship with Shostakovich beginning in the early ’40s may well have led to those klezmerish sequences.**
The ATOS Trio’s version of the Shostakovich trio is on The Russian Album, along with trios by Rachmaninoff and Anton Arensky; it is highly recommended. Also on the German Farao label are The French Album (with trios by Lili Boulanger, Jean Françaix, Cécile Chaminade, and Debussy; also outstanding) and The Czech Album (Smetana and Dvorak; haven’t heard), and on the Cleveland-based Azica label is The German Album (the usuals; haven’t heard). Out this year, via a Kickstarter campaign, is The Vienna Album, with trios by Korngold, Krenek and Kreisler (which suggests a KKK joke that wouldn’t be funny since they’re Jewish…) The Vienna Album was the only one the ATOS Trio had for sale in Asheville since they lost a piece of luggage on the flight in from Berlin the previous evening. I didn’t buy one and I wish that I had. They have a discography beyond those four CDs, though it’s sort of tough to piece together via online search engines…
As for the ACMS, they are in their 67th year of bringing absolutely world-class artists to a small Southern city five or six times per annum. Along with (less regularly) the Black Mountain College + Museum and the Wortham Center, the Chamber Music Society affords us opportunities to see the sort of brilliant ensembles that make classical music rewarding. Seeing mediocre classical music – as my experience last winter underscored – is pointless, really, not unlike watching Single A baseball; seeing artists the caliber of the ATOS Trio and the Harlem Quartet this season, or the Trio Karénine and the Takacs Quartet last year, can be a truly transcendent experience. Find out more at the ACMS website. And, again, they let people 25-and-under in to shows for free.
* The other would be Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony, the Nonesuch version of which achieved Dark Side of the Moon status on the Billboard classical charts for a good reason – it’s brilliant. SUPER catchy.
** It did not occur to me to say it was cool that a German trio would present Weinberg’s trio, given the fact the Nazis murdered Weinberg’s family after he emigrated to the Soviet Union in ’39.