Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Amicus Piano Trio play “masterpieces from the Soviet era”


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Melody Chang.
Coleman Itzkoff.
Alin Melik-Adamyan.
Shostakovich’s mature Piano Trio No. 2 (he wrote only two) is one of his most searching, original and frequently performed chamber works, and has considerably overshadowed its predecessor, the Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor Op. 8. This was composed in 1923 when he was not yet 17 (just two years before his brilliantly precocious First Symphony took the musical world by storm), and it was a particular pleasure to find the Amicus Piano Trio (Melody Chang, violin; Coleman Itzkoff, ‘cello; Alin Melik-Adamyan, piano) choosing the earlier trio to open their April “First Fridays at First!” lunchtime recital.

I don’t know how much inner meaning the flyer subtitle “masterpieces from the Soviet era” was intended to convey, but for me this extraordinary one-movement piece, alternating sharply as it does between a somber, yearning romanticism and gadfly humor, has a pervasive freshness and excitement that perhaps embodies the sense then that the new régime, still only six years old, could deliver anything, artistically, culturally and socially. Certainly there is an unmistakable ebullience and optimism in Shostakovich’s letters from this time to his mother (which mention the trio several times), despite the straitened circumstances and already fragile health of the young composer.

Arno Babajanian.
A generation later the dead hand of tyranny, the first clenches of which were barely detectable during Shostakovich’s teens, had already been stretched for many years across the Soviet empire, which included Armenia, birthplace of Arno Babajanian (alternative spellings, under which the curious may find more information on line, include Babadjanian, Babadjanyan, and even Babadzhanyan). He was a new name, and his 1952 Piano Trio in F sharp minor a new work, to me, and boy – did it make an impression in the Amicus Trio’s electrifying performance!

Ms Melik-Adamyan introduced it, noting that Shostakovich is said to have referred to Babajanian's Piano Trio as one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. It certainly sounded like a masterpiece here, from the compulsive and tragic unfolding of the first movement’s Largo introduction and whiplash cut-off at its height, through the long-breathed, narrow-compassed melodic lines (reminding one again and again of Rachmaninov) in both the first and second movements, to the festive, folk music-infused finale, which at the end turns a sharp corner and slams stunningly into a reprise of the work’s opening tragic tones. Here the musically satisfying tying of the cyclic knot could also be taken as a fist shaken at Soviet oppression – who knows?

All three players gave it their all, as they had for the Shostakovich First Piano Trio, with Ms Chang’s slightly thin but pure and intense violin tone, delivered with light fast vibrato and vehement attack, making as strong an impression as the soulful richness of Mr Itzkoff’s ‘cello and Ms Melik-Adamyan’s dynamic pianism. After two such outstanding performances the standing ovation so routinely give at southern Californian classical concerts was for once deserved, and the enthusiastic audience was rewarded with an encore in the shape of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 6 in D flat major, done with teasing slyness and all the idiomatic joy and passion that by now one was anticipating from this hugely talented group.


“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, April 7, 2017.
Photos: Performers: Amicus Piano Trio; Arno Babajanian: Wikimedia Commons.

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