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It is not often that three of the world’s greatest string players come together to make chamber music. On the 24th of August violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann was joined by viola player Antoine Tamestit and cellist Christian Poltéra. In many ways the string trio formation (also that of two violins and viola) vie for supremacy with the string quartet for popularity. So much so that string trio could be regarded as the zenith of Classical chamber music particularly that of Haydn and Mozart. We have to wait again till the 20th century to hear master pieces for string trio for example those of Schoenberg, Reger, Hindemith and Webern. We were fortunate to hear a twenty minute long master piece of the second Viennese school by the originator of the twelve tone system Schoenberg. The music is not traditionally appealing.

Schoenberg has expressed according to Thomas Mann, “his illness and medical treatment in the music including even the male nurses and all the other oddities(!) of American hospitals”. The two European creative forces Mann and Schoenberg were exiled in California in 1947 invited there for a symposium. Juxtapositions of unlike material are reflections of the delirium which the composer suffered and events as perceived from a semi conscious or highly sedated state. The music is full of a brupt and striking changes of texture and affect as musical ideas are broken off, interrupted by other ideas that are by themselves interrupted. Waltzes from old Vienna, rather fragments of such remembered Waltzes likewise play a mediating role between the opposing forces of surface contrast an unifying twelve note technique.

Schoenberg’s despair was all to evident in the playing by Trio Zimmermann. The hair raising technical difficulties were surmounted with sure confidence and conviction. There was no difficulty with the hair pin glissandi even in contrary motion ending with sharp pizzicato notes both abruptly and gently.

The Trio Zimmermann capped this outstanding modern work with a towering performance of Bach’s jewel like Goldberg variations written originally for double manual harpsichord. I first heard Dmitry Sitkovetsky play his arrangements for string trio a few years ago in of all places India. Last night the Trio Zimmermann played their own arrangement which served the sole purpose of disclosing Bach’s score and the genius of his composition. We have to thank the Electoral Court of Saxony’s Count kaiserling who often stopped in Leipzig and brought with him Johann Goldberg to have him given musical instruction by Bach. The count was often ill and had sleepless nights mentioning in Bach presence that he would like to have some pieces for Goldberg which would help him fall asleep. Bach came up with a full set of thirty variations on a beautiful serene theme in G major. This was worked through in various textures including fugal passages both smooth and lively  encompassing the whole variety of texture for three string lines with minimal double stopping. The theme is in three four time and the variations go through groups of triplets culminating in a solid string tone that is of hair raising intensity.

You will hear from me again reporting live from the Salzburg festival in a couple of days about Verdi’s Aida and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Stay tuned!