Talking Trios with Alexander Hülshoff, Cellist of the Trio Bamberg
By way of introduction, a few words about the Trio Bamberg, an ensemble quite active in Europe, Japan, and South America, but not yet widely known in the States. Its members are pianist Robert Benz, who won first prize at both the International Busoni Competition and the International Liszt-Bartók Competition; Russian violinist Jewgeni Schuk, who at 23 took the position of first concertmaster of the Moscow Philharmonic and now serves in that role with the Stuttgart State Theater Orchestra; and, of course, cellist Alexander Hülshoff, whom I have the pleasure of interviewing. Hülshoff can claim as one of his teachers the world famous cellist Lynn Harrell.
The Trio Bamberg—or as we tend to turn things around here in America, the Bamberg Trio—has recorded a good deal of the mainstream repertoire, including the trios of Schubert (reviewed below), Mendelssohn, Onslow, Smetana, Brahms, Dvořák, Suk, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Schnittke, but heretofore, only two or three of the ensemble’s releases have found their way to these shores. Hopefully, this interview and review will raise awareness here in the U.S. of the ensemble’s fine work.
Q: How, when, and where was the Trio Bamberg formed?
A: The Trio Bamberg was actually formed in 1996 with Robert Benz, Jewgeni Schuk, and cellist Stephan Gerlinghaus, and indeed it was in the city of Bamberg. We’re centered now in the Rhine Main area in the west of Germany. I’ve been the Trio’s cellist since 2007.
Q: Looking at the chamber music repertoire as a whole, it seems that the piano trio is second only in numbers of works to the string quartet. Since the time of Haydn and Mozart, almost every major 19th-century composer contributed one or more piano trios to the literature, as did quite a few 20th-century composers as well. And, when you think of works like Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio or the two Schubert trios you’ve recorded, they’re among their respective composers’ greatest works. Even Tchaikovsky, who hated the idea of writing a piano trio and resisted the nagging of his benefactress as long as he could, finally gave in and composed a masterpiece. What do you think accounts for this? What makes the piano trio an ideal medium for the expression of such profound musical expression?
A: The repertoire for piano trio includes major works of the major composers of all periods and yes, those pieces are among the greatest works. Adding to that, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, and also Saint-Saëns wrote unique trios that put the piano trio in the same rank as the repertoire for string quartet. The emotional strength in the Tchaikovsky trio, for example, is the same as that in the late Beethoven quartets or Schoenberg’s
. Interestingly enough, those trios by Tchaikovsky and Smetana are very personal statements of composers in a tough emotional state, and that makes them outstanding. They are deep and authentic dirges.
Q: Let’s talk about the two Schubert trios you’ve recently recorded for Musicaphon. Some commentators have said that the two scores represent the male and female, or the yin and yang, of Schubert’s persona. I think his psychological makeup was far too complex to reduce these works to such a simplistic paradigm. Besides, by the time he completed these two trios in 1828, his health was already rapidly deteriorating. Whether it was conscious or not, the prospect of impending death must have occurred to him. What is your take on the music? How do the trios differ, both technically and in material content?
A: It’s amazing what Schubert composed in his last year, not just the two trios, but the string quintet and his last three great piano sonatas. How was it possible that so much music came out of him in that time? He must have been constantly writing out on paper what was already finished in his mind. He was finally sure about his music. For some reason, Schubert—in comparison with another great composer Mozart, who also died too young—is the composer that would have been for me the more interesting to see what he would have written in another five years. So, both trios, in our perception, are not really farewells to his life. They are masterpieces in all ways, written for actual performers in Vienna: Schuppanzigh, Bocklet, and Linke. Each of the trios is of a very different character, as Robert Schumann pointed out. The B♭-Major Trio is more influenced by Austrian folk elements, and it’s more playful. The E♭-Major Trio stands more in the Beethoven tradition, following in the footsteps of the great Master. The key indicates a much more heroic, “Eroica” background, and looking at the sketches, one sees that the composition process resembles that of Beethoven. The return of the second movement theme in the last movement is a perfect solution for the Finale and gives the piece this inner strength.
Coming back to Schubert’s last year and his health, I wonder if the trios reflect that. Schubert’s music manifests a vision of death that is at once very chilling and frightening, yet, at the same time, seductive and inviting. It’s the Austrian
that so strongly influences the music of Mahler as well. The theme of the slow movement of the E♭-Trio is an exact quote of a Swedish folk song,
Se solen sjunker
, where the falling octave in the course of the subject has the words “ Far-väl” (farewell). Is it a sign of resignation? In my opinion, no, not really. It’s more a typical romantic gesture that Schubert liked rather than a personal statement.
Q: While the B♭-Major Trio is a work of surpassing beauty, it’s the E♭-Major Trio that has always struck me as one of Schubert’s supreme masterpieces, alongside his C-Major String Quintet and the B♭-Major Piano Sonata. Even if he hadn’t completed the trio, the second movement by itself is a work of towering genius. But to then bring its theme back in the last movement, alter it rhythmically, and then transform it harmonically in the closing measures to end in a blaze of glory is one of music’s miracles. Would you agree that this is an early example of cyclic form and thematic transformation?
A: Yes, absolutely! The quote of the second movement in the Finale is a very nice bracket for this truly amazing giant movement and for the whole piece. It’s a unique solution for how to relate the coda to the slow movement.
Q: Which of the two trios poses the greater technical challenges for the players and what are they? For example, there are a lot of triplets against dotted-eighths and sixteenths in the first movement of the B♭-Major Trio, which always poses a bit of a timing question: Does one play the sixteenths before or after the last note of the triplet?
A: The B♭-Major, as I said, is more playful, and the approach to the music is more through the instruments. Ultimately, it’s the more demanding of the two, especially for cellists. What to do with the rhythmic timing really depends on the music. However, in this piece, in the first movement, the sixteenth should be a real sixteenth.
Q: When we listen to the E♭-Major Trio, we tend to focus on the melodic and harmonic elements, but I notice that as an ensemble, you do something very different that I’ve never heard anyone do before. Right away, in bar 6, there’s a Morse-code-like rhythmic pattern—bum, bum—which you emphasize. It’s a pattern that recurs over and over again throughout the work. It doesn’t usually call attention to itself in quite the way it does in your performance, because you emphasize it each time it occurs. What were the thoughts and discussions among your colleagues about this?
A: Well, those two quarter notes occur throughout the piece, but marked differently, of course. It’s a recurrent motif that Schubert uses as a vehicle for rhythmic impulse.
Q: I note that you skip the exposition repeats in the first movements of both trios. I surmise that decision was made to facilitate fitting both of these very lengthy trios onto a single disc, which, without the repeats, is over 81 minutes. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it; in fact, in Schubert I’m all too willing to excuse it because he can be so repetitious anyway. But what do you say to someone who believes otherwise?
A: As you say, there’s only limited space on a CD.
Q: I see from your web discography that, of Beethoven’s piano trios, the only one you’ve recorded so far is the “Ghost,” op. 70/1. Might we look forward to a complete survey of the Beethoven trios sometime in the near future?
A: In the last two years, we’ve performed the op. 70/2 a lot, as well as the “Archduke” Trio. So, yes, recording the complete Beethoven trios will be only a question of time, and we really look forward to that.
Q: What other projects might be in the works? Over the years, I’ve discovered so many gorgeous Romantic period piano trios, some by composers not necessarily associated with chamber music, like Chopin and Bruch, and others by composers whose works are hardly known at all, like Woldemar Bargiel and Guillaume Lekeu. Any plans to delve into some of the less well-known repertoire? If so, I can furnish you with a very long list.
A: I absolutely agree; and yes, there is more to come. We really enjoy performing the Babajajan Trio and the MacMillan
Fourteen Little Pictures
. And having mentioned Saint-Saëens earlier, we just finished our recording of his two trios,
La muse et le poet
Q: Will any of your concert tours bring you to the States sometime soon? If so, when and where?
A: We have been performing all over Europe and South America. Since Robert and I studied for a long time in the States, it would be wonderful coming back. We look forward to some future projects in the U.S.
Piano Trios: in B♭,
Stephan Gerlinghaus (vc)
MUSICAPHON 56934 (81:36)
Schubert’s two valedictory piano trios are so well known and so thoroughly explored on record, there’s no need to discuss them in detail. I do want to focus, however, on a point I brought up with Alexander Hülshoff in our interview. As is clear from the above header, Hülshoff, though a permanent member of the Trio Bamberg, happens not to play in this performance of the E♭-Major Trio. That assignment goes to cellist Stephan Gerlinghaus, his predecessor. Nonetheless, I noted that the ensemble does something I’ve never quite heard any other group do before vis-à-vis the rhythmic punctuation motive of two quarter notes that appears as early as the sixth measure of the score. It’s a motive that permeates the entire work, acting as both a phrase delimiter and the carrier of a special meaning, like the word “STOP” in a telegram. The Trio Bamberg emphasizes each occurrence in a way that really hammers it home, and makes you wonder what secret message Schubert might have encoded in the work.
Beyond that, these performances of both trios exhibit spotless execution without sacrificing anything in emotional warmth. To those who will get their knickers in a bunch over the skipped exposition repeats, I can offer no more succinct and perfect reply than that given by Hülshoff himself: “There’s only limited space on a CD.” I doubt it would be possible to include the repeats, which aren’t short, and still fit both trios on a single disc. For me, the tradeoff is worth it, especially given playing this superb.
Musicaphon’s recording, too, a coproduction with BR Klassik, is beautifully balanced to allow all three instruments equal voice in optimal acoustic settings. Strictly speaking, the recording of neither trio is new. The B♭-Major Trio was recorded in Bavaria’s Neumarkt District in 2009; the E♭-Major Trio, in Nuremberg in 2005. This explains why a different cellist is heard in the E♭-Trio; Alexander Hülshoff, as he states in the interview, came on board in 2007.
There are simply too many outstanding recordings of these trios—a couple of which have even made my Want Lists in previous years—to say that the Trio Bamberg’s versions better or best any number of them. But I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to place them among the top five or six contenders, and having both trios on a single disc should be an extra bonus. Very strongly recommended.