Beethoven’s Ghost | Selby & Friends

Following the success of Let’s Get Personal, Selby & Friends returns with their recorded live concerts in celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven. The global pandemic saw the cancellation of many events commemorating the composer’s 250th birthday but Selby & Friends hope Beethoven’s Ghost will make up for what could have been.

The program consists of three of Beethoven’s piano trios chosen as examples of key moments in his life. The first piece “C minor Trio Opus 1 No. 3” was composed between 1793-94 while Beethoven was 24, the same age as violinist Harry Ward, and represents a coming of age for the composer’s work. Ward introduces the piece with the story that Haydn advised Beethoven that the piece was too bold and wouldn’t be received well but the piece has gone on to become a staple in the piano trio repertoire.

The first movement opens creepingly, notes sneaking across the stage and into the empty City Recital Hall. But as the pace picks up, the piece moves around a lot with changes in tone that get picked up and dropped like trying on a selection of hats. The two following movements are much more delicate, leaning towards a pastoral quality with Kathryn Selby’s piano crystalline in the back. At times Selby plays like raindrops dripping on treetops and at others like pattering feet, creating a strong but ever moving backbone to the strings. In the final movement Beethoven’s boldness comes through an intense humming violin that moves in a wave similar to the first movement but with greater disparity between the peaks and troughs.

For the second piece the trio bring forth a Beethoven classic with a twist. Using Beethoven’s own arrangement, the trio reimagine “Symphony No. 2” from 40+ players down to three. Cellist Timo-Veikko Valve explains this kind of rearranging of full symphonies was common to make them more accessible for smaller groups but also to increase sales for their composers. In the playing, the piece maintains its familiar melodies and grandiose tone simply on a smaller scale. In the first movement Beethoven’s heavy tread comes through before the pace becomes a race towards the second movement. One can imagine the nuance in the complicated composition of the third movement and the sharp discordance at the close of the fourth which creates an exciting climax before the hard ending.

The piece that inspired the name of the program is the “‘Ghost’ Piano Trio” so named for the ghostly quality of its second movement. This immediately seems at odds with the opening movement which is pretty and perky, played with a high energy. Ward and Valve display a fluid dynamic between their instruments in this movement, balanced out by the twinkling of Selby’s piano. Then the stark tonal change in the second movement. Now the strings seem to wail in a sombre, nearly funereal manner, with the clanking piano cutting through. It’s not hard to see how the lingering notes of the strings would be described as haunting. Something of the first piece returns for the closing movement with its flighty and scattered sound which closes out the concert on a more uplifted note than the previous movement.

Selby’s clarity in her playing provides the foundation for the trio and significantly shapes the atmosphere of the program. Where Valve and Ward wander into the complexity of Beethoven’s compositions, the piano acts like a guide through the frequently changing moods. Once again Selby & Friends brings together some excellent performers for an impressive program.

Beethoven’s Ghost is available for viewing on the Selby & Friends website from July 4th

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