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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Review: Bailey, Nikkanen, Rawls delight in Beethoven

Donivan Johnson Corresondent

For the penultimate concert of the 2016 Northwest Bach Festival, artistic director Zuill Bailey selected the three String Trios, Op. 9 of Ludwig van Beethoven. When the 28-year-old composer published these trios he remarked they were his “best work so far.”

The phenomenal performers for this concert were: Kurt Nikkanen, violin; Scott Rawls, viola; and Bailey, cello. The order of performance was changed so the final and shortest of the three trios, the C minor, was played first. This was followed by the second in D major. After intermission, the musicians tackled the longest and most stunningly virtuosic Trio in G major.

The capacity audience Saturday at Barrister Winery was allowed to enter into a world of exquisite sound by a young composer where the humorous ghost of Haydn and the whimsical spirit of Mozart were still present in the music.

That these trios were not “light chamber pieces” was obvious from the very beginning.

The first four pitches of the Trio in C minor signaled that the evening would be a unforgettable experience. Measure by measure, phrase by elegantly crafted phrase, the three performers, with perfect ensemble, dynamics and – most importantly – feeling, bathed the room in sublime musical wonder.

Moments of light and the influences of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were present, for example, in the D minor second movement of the D major trio. The uncanny and perfectly executed pizzicato dialogue between violin and cello were fun to hear and watch. This is the only moment in all 12 movements where Beethoven employed pizzicato.

The last measures of the first movement were similarly enjoyable with a scale passage in the viola and loud triple-stops on violin and cello. This ending elicited smiles and a few chuckles from the audience.

The performance in G major, the longest and most difficult of the trios, brought the audience to its feet in a well-deserved ovation. The last movement was technically perfect in every dimension. The second movement, in E major, is to be played adagio, ma non tanto e cantabile (slowly, not too much, singingly). It was, for me, the most moving, heart-longing music I had heard for some time.

Earlier in the week this ensemble performed the only other two string trios by Beethoven (Op. 3 and Op. 8) at two different locations in Spokane. Thus, all five string trios were performed during this year’s Bach Festival.

The audience was fortunate to have heard Beethoven’s “best work so far” by a trio of instrumental masters performing at the highest caliber of their art.

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