Beethoven's ghost alive and well



Lee Shi Mei (violin), Lin Juan (cello), Lim Yan (piano)

Esplanade Recital Studio

Last Saturday

There was more than one ghost hovering around this concert.

First to appear was Mozart's ghost - who emerged, pretty obviously it must be said, in Arvo Part's Mozart-Adagio.

While Lim Yan nonchalantly drifted through a chunk of Mozart's second Piano Sonata, Lee Chi Mei and Lin Juan jabbed cautiously at various unrelated notes, sometimes holding on to them and sometimes letting them slip out of their grasp.

They eventually drove Mozart away and, with nothing more to do, the music simply disintegrated into thin air.

They played well enough, but I remain unconvinced that this particular piece of Part is worth trotting out in public - that is, other than as a clever piece of spooky programming.

The ghost of Beethoven always seemed to hover over Brahms when the latter was composing and it made its presence felt in his mighty B Flat Piano Trio.

True, in later life, Brahms revisited the work in an effort to expunge much of its Beethovenian aftertaste, but the spectre remained. With their studied avoidance of excessive vibrato, Lee and Lin often emphasised the eerie calls from the past in the work, especially its haunting slow movement.

Lim's gloriously robust and powerfully self-assertive piano playing in the faster Brahms movements effectively drove away the lingering sense of unease which sometimes crept into the string playing. With his total mastery of the work as well as his tremendously instinctive approach to chamber music playing in general, Lim towered over this performance in a way which would have sent any errant ghosts scuttling for cover.

Which is not to say he was in any way overpowering. Part of his impressive musicianship is his ability to integrate so well with his chamber music partners that his own effortless virtuosity passes virtually unnoticed.

This was a glorious performance of the Brahms Trio, which might have owed its success to Lim's cohesive presence, but also relied on the deep musical instincts of all three players.

The ghost of the programme's title was not a musical but an imaginary literary one. Ever since one of Beethoven's pupils described the slow movement of the composer's D Major Piano Trio as the "Ghost of Hamlet's Father", the name has stuck.

Beethoven may not have intended it, but there certainly was something spooky about the movement in this strangely opaque performance.

Again, keeping vibrato to the absolute minimum, Lee and Lin brought out the other-worldly quality of the music, with Lim adding dark and mysterious hues as a backdrop.

The outer movements were neither spooky nor inhabited by ghosts. They simply exuded fine musicianship from three highly capable, flesh-and-blood players.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'Beethoven's ghost alive and well'. Print Edition | Subscribe