international, if one takes into account the fact that about a third of its 130 concerts each season are performed in towns and cities all over the world. Three men make up the group: Menahem Pressler, piano; Bernard Greenhouse, cello; and Isidore Cohen, violin.
Nicholas Delbanco, as he tells us in the introduction, is the son-in-law of Greenhouse. Delbanco, best known for his novels, also tells us he played chamber music in his youth, so one might anticipate a twofold labor of love. But perhaps the proximity to the subject had a hampering effect on the author. The book is disappointing.
Chapters on each of the musicians alternate with more general ones. For these personal looks at the men, Delbanco has unfortunately chosen the question-and-answer format, an odd technique to choose when so much richness was available to him. (He traveled with the group and had easy access to the men.) This device tends to blanch the life out of a subject -- even one as interesting as this trio of spirited and articulate musicians.
At the start of each of these exchanges, the author tediously informs the reader that "Int." stands for him and the initials for the man being reviewed. Here is an excerpt from the interview with Greenhouse: "In the case of the cello literature, however, there are very few instructions to the musicians. Bach comes unadorned. Boccherini -- who must have been a great technician to be able to perform his pieces -- doesn't tell you how to replicate his own techniques . . ." Surprisingly, it is Delbanco, not the cellist, who is speaking.
Of the three men, Cohen is perhaps the most moving. He came to music relatively late and spent little time on the flamboyant violin repertoire, which might explain why he is such an excellent chamber musician. He had been second violinist with the Juilliard Quartet for 10 years, and perhaps modesty made him amazed that the Beaux Arts wanted him without a tryout. Of the group's constant rehearsing, even of recorded works, he says, "There must be some disagreement, some discussion as to why it has to be played that way. Because through the conflict and during the discussion something emerges, something additional is born."
Delbanco devotes a chapter to a week of recording two Mozart piano quartets with the violist Bruno Giuranna. It is grinding work: "Conversation is technical, abrupt. 'You stick to your bowing, I'll change mine.' 'Your resolution is our first note; give it to me a little clearer, please.' 'The first five notes after the slurred note, could you start a little lighter? It should sing.' 'So, let's try it from D.' " Out of such tedium come some of the greatest chamber music recordings the world has known. (A discography lists recorded works.) Toward the end of the session, Delbanco speaks to the page turner, who has not moved in four hours. "I ask her if she's tired, if the time doesn't seem a bit long. She smiles up at me, revealing poor teeth. 'It goes very quickly, I think.' "
Toward the end, the trio tours France -- practicing when they aren't performing. Reviews catch up with them as they move along. Est Republicain, in Besanc,on, compares them with the "Holy Trinity in their reverend and saintly perfection;" La Montagne, in Clermont-Ferrand, calls their playing "marvelous, brilliant, and sensitive, a rare homogeneity of ensemble . . . a wild pleasure." It rains on them all over France, and on a rare night off they have dinner at a brasserie. Afterward, they walk along the Seine. Music is always on their minds, and Greenhouse says, as he stops to light a cigar, that he would like to try a new approach to the Schumann Third Trio, which they rarely perform and which they have been practicing. "There are components of the children's tale, the fairy story, and he wants to stress the playful aspects of the piece. 'It's irregular,' he says, 'But we should give it a try.' "
In the introduction, Delbanco has promised to keep his own voice at a minimum, but that is what he has not done. Not only does he lecture us on cello notation, he even inserts his own jokes. The trio literature attracts great performers for sporadic performances. Over the years Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, and Artur Rubinstein had a go at it; then Leonard Rose, Isaac Stern, and Eugene Istomin; and now Itzhak Perlman, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Lynn Harrell. The parts are often gloriously soloistic, which is, of course, counterproductive to the idea of pure chamber music, and if there is a basic reason that the Beaux Arts shines, I suspect it is that, in deference to the composer, they subdue their egos. Would that Delbanco had done the same.