Wednesday, April 26, 2017

South Bay Chamber Music Society Season Finale

REVIEW: Pacific Trio play Zemlinsky and Schubert piano trios

South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

The Pacific Trio: l-r Edith Orloff, John Walz, Roger Wilkie

Alexander Von Zemlinsky
at approximately the age
he composed his Piano Trio.

The instrumental line-up specified on the title-page of the Trio in D minor Op. 3 by Alexander von Zemlinsky (1870-1942) is clarinet in B flat, ‘cello and piano, and of the 15 recordings of the work currently listed on ArkivMusic, all but four employ the clarinet. Nonetheless, the published parts include a violin as alternative, and in many sources the work is actually referred to as a “piano trio” (i.e. for violin, ‘cello and piano).

So… you pays your money and you takes your choice, and for mine neither is “better” than the other. The clarinet has the more pungent stand-out tone, but the greater aural homogeneity of the two stringed instruments is its own virtue, and the powerful unanimity of this performance by the Pacific Trio (Roger Wilkie violin, John Walz ‘cello, Edith Orloff, piano) – the first item in the final concert of what has largely been an outstanding season from the South Bay Chamber Music Society – certainly showed the validity of presenting Zemlinsky’s Op. 3 as such. 

The on-line program note, copied from the Allmusic website, did the trio a disservice by dwelling overmuch on its perceived derivativeness (not to mention describing its composer, who lived through most of the first half of the 20th century and composed a lot of his best music in the 1920s and 1930s, as “a minor master of the fin de siècle”!). While not as distinctive as some of those later works, it certainly held the attention with its memorable themes and strong structure, delivered through a forceful performance that was committed enough to include the long exposition repeat in the first of the three movements, pushing it up to around 15 minutes’ duration, more than half the total. 

It was warmly received by the audience, and anyone who enjoyed it will surely respond just as warmly to the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Zemlinsky’s large-scale Romantic masterpiece Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”), with which Eckart Preu opens his inaugural season as their new Music Director on October 17.

Franz Schubert after 1825:
engraving by Josef Eduard Teltscher.
In his 1964 acceptance speech for the first Aspen Award in the Humanities, Benjamin Britten remarked that arguably “the richest and most productive eighteen months in our music history is [… ] the period in which Franz Schubert wrote his Winterreise, the C major Symphony, his last three piano sonatas, the C major String Quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces” – i.e. from the summer of 1827 to November 1828, when he died.

Even leaving out the Ninth Symphony, which later scholarship has shown to date from around two years earlier, this roster of late Schubert masterpieces is simply jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring, and not least among those “dozen other glorious pieces” is the Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat, Op. 100 D. 929, almost certainly completed by the end of 1827. The Pacific Trio could hardly have chosen a more imposing work to conclude their concert, or the SBCMS its season, and the players did it proud.

The original version of the finale of this very long work underwent a significant cut by the composer before publication (as well as the removal of its previously-marked exposition repeat), and I had wondered whether the Pacific Trio might choose to play the original version, which was only published in 1975. It was not be, but – while one always respects interpretative decisions – I was a little more disappointed when they also chose not to observe the exposition repeat in the almost equally long first movement, which is retained in Schubert’s published version – particularly as they had included the Zemlinsky first-movement repeat. 

However that said, this was still a treat of a performance – robustly forthright from beginning to end as the Zemlinsky had been – and not only delivering with maximum force such highlights as the Andante con moto slow movement’s dissolution, from the dogged march that has propelled it so far, into the blackest sfff climactic tragedy, but also a sensitive grading of that same movement’s subsequent tentative return to the mood of the opening, truly here un poco più lento as Schubert asks, feeling his way note by note, cadence by cadence, back from the abyss onto solid ground once more. 

I did miss a certain tenderness both in those parts of the first movement where the music withdraws suddenly from the robustness of the first subject to the staccato pp second subject, and similarly at the miraculous moment in the finale when, after what has already been a long and complex exposition, Schubert unexpectedly adds yet another element to his potent mix with a reprise of the Andante’s dogged march. However, this could have been a consequence of the Pacific Unitarian Church acoustic’s apparent inability to deliver a true pianissimo. A pity, this – the one drawback to what is otherwise a perfect concert venue near the summit of the Palos Verde peninsula, on this occasion for a work that is undoubtedly at the summit of the chamber music repertoire. 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, April 23, 2017. Photos: Pacific Trio: SBCMS; Alexander von Zemlinsky, Franz Schubert: Wikimedia Commons.

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