Most siblings look back on a childhood of pick-up football games and getting into scrapes together. Ashley, Daniel, and Andrew Hsu, on the other hand, may remember the time they played Beethoven's last three piano sonatas on a single program while still students at the Curtis Institute of Music.
That time was Wednesday night in Field Concert Hall. They could have chosen a strand of Beethoven bagatelles, or taken turns with the Goldberg Variations, if the only point had been to play up the familial connection. But Beethoven's last three piano sonatas are technically colossal and, in their meaning, often Sphinxlike. They are works that, on the arc of a performer's career, they should lie somewhere after the arrival of insight into the fragility and hard-won contentment of human existence, but before the pianist begins to lose strength and endurance. What could musical saplings bring to them?
As students of two big personalities - former Curtis director Gary Graffman and resident centenarian Eleanor Sokoloff - the Hsus presented the common problem of not knowing which ideas were original to the performer and which the acts of dutiful obedience to the teacher. But the disparities in the phrasing, tone, and temperament of each player suggested, at the very least, that Graffman and Sokoloff respected and worked with the core personalities they found.
Perhaps it's rash to gauge from single works, but profiles emerged: Ashley the scholar, Daniel the poet, and Andrew the prose writer. Plenty of crossover of these qualities could be heard, of course. But all throughout the Sonata No. 31, Opus 110, Daniel - the baby, at 17 - peered into corners of drama and impetuousness with his bright, large sound. He started the "Fuga" with an unassuming glassine assuredness, but as the subject developed, he made a series of statements about the power of freedom within the constraints of order. There's an expressive edge to his playing that charms, questions, and coaxes. He has great personality.
The first two movements of the Sonata No. 30, Opus 109 are brief and demand instantaneous expressive changes. Ashley, 23, was sometimes more studious than emotionally unrestrained in these two movements. She likes to be rhythmically straightforward. She took more liberties in the third movement, however, and delivered something profound.
It could be that over time, Andrew, 20, will hear more desperation than fury in the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata No. 32, Opus 111, but his maturity in sustaining emotional lines in the long second movement was a surprise. At nearly 20 minutes, its variations have a lulling, transfixing quality that waxes and wanes. Most touching, he avoided all brusqueness in the penultimate moments, clearing the way for an ending of thrilling liberation.
Where can this format go? Ashley and Daniel graduate this May. And Andrew, who earned a piano degree in 2013, is now enrolled in Curtis' composition department, and suddenly the six-hand piano repertoire has never seemed so impoverished.