Monday, May 15, 2017

Good friends play Schubert at Rolling Hills


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Cécilia Tsan
A few weeks ago we lucky South Bay chamber music aficionados enjoyed a powerful performance by the Pacific Trio of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 100 D.929 in the SB Chamber Music Society’s last concert of its 2016-17 season at the Pacific Unitarian Church on top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Last Sunday, halfway down the hill at RHUMC, it was the turn of the “other one”, the Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 99 D.898, performed by three avowedly good friends, Martin Chalifour, Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cécilia Tsan, Principal ‘cellist of the Long Beach Symphony, and virtuoso pianist Steven Vanhauwaert.

Scholarship seems not to have settled whether these two masterpieces were composed sequentially, if so in what order, or concurrently, though the balance of opinion tips towards the numbering being correct. What is not in doubt is that both belong to what Benjamin Britten called arguably “the richest and most productive eighteen months in our music history [… ] the period in which Franz Schubert wrote his Winterreise […] his last three piano sonatas, the C major String Quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces.”

Martin Chalifour
Despite their similarity – both being large-scale, four-movement structures (sonata-allegro/ slow movement/ scherzo-and-trio/ fast-paced (the B-flat) medium-paced (the E-flat) finale) – the two trios are different in mood, a difference that seems in a way to radiate outwards from their respective slow movements. Whereas that of the E-flat is a dogged march, from the outset seemingly anticipating strife, that rises to a pitch of anguish and despair from which the composer seems barely able to recover, the B-flat’s Andante un poco mosso keeps darkness thoroughly at bay, blithely turning at the smallest hint of clouds into yet another sunlit vale.

Steven Vanhauwaert
Overall this work, from its proudly unison opening to the bounding conclusion of the rondo finale, enshrines collaboration and smiling conversation between all three protagonists, but the shining exception where one of them sings out soloistically is the ‘cello solo that opens the slow movement. Ms Tsan’s pace here was easeful and flowing, entirely avoiding indulgent sentimentality and with a clear-eyed tenderness that was exactly matched by Mr Chalifour when he took over Schubert’s heavenly melody, both strings firmly but discreetly supported by Mr Vanhauwaert’s chordal piano accompaniment.

Indeed this was throughout a fleet and affectionate performance, coming in at a few seconds under 37 minutes, sans repeats in the first and second movements for time considerations, but nowhere feeling rushed or neglectful of the myriad subtleties in Schubert’s wondrous score. There was still time, however, for a short encore, the first of the five Novelletten Op. 29 by the Danish composer Niels Gade. Like so many early-mid 19th century Romantics whose names are not Mendelssohn, Gade has by now virtually disappeared under that master’s shadow, but is well worth looking out for. I hope that these three friends some time let us hear live those other four Novelletten (which a quick YouTube listen shows to be quite varied and different in mood from the bubbling jollity of the first).


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, May 14, 2017.

Photos: Martin Chalifour (Gary Coronado, LA Times); Steven Vanhauwaert; Cécilia Tsan: Courtesy Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.

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