Thursday, April 11, 2019

Piano Trio Masterpieces at Temple Israel

l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Steven Vanhauwaert, Cécilia Tsan.


“An Afternoon of Chamber Music”, Temple Israel, Long Beach

This concert was presented by Temple Israel, Long Beach’s oldest synagogue, as “a gift to our community”, and it proved to be a cherishable gift, due to the program-building skill of ‘cellist/organizer Cécilia Tsan, the committed performances by herself and colleagues Ambroise Aubrun (violin) and Steven Vanhauwaert (piano), and not least, the recently renovated venue itself, with the clean, dryish acoustic and welcoming, intimate, but nonetheless lofty and light-filled, space of the sanctuary that housed the performance.

Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791).
There were also some assumption-challenging aspects to all three works chosen. By the time Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) reached his mid-60s, he was at the height of his fame with a vast output already behind him—through much of which he had virtually single-handedly taken sonata form from its rudimentary origins to a sophisticated and highly flexible compositional paradigm. So you might expect his Piano Trio in G major Hob.XV:25, composed in 1795 and published as Op. 71 No. 2 (also sometimes designated his Piano Trio No. 39), to reflect this in its structure.

But no. Haydn’s late piano trios, sometimes undervalued compared to his contemporary symphonies and string quartets, include some of his most freshly inventive works; in this example there’s barely a hint of sonata design across its three concise movements and certainly not in the first, an Andante set of seven variations on an amiable theme, which move between major and minor and vary in measure length to maintain variety and interest.

The scholar Charles Rosen regarded these trios as really being solo piano works that employ the violin to reinforce or assume the melodic line and the ‘cello to give additional bass support. It was one of the delights of this performance that the strengths of each player tended to mask this unequal division of responsibility, Mr. Vanhauwaert’s light, bright, and precise handling of the piano part on the Temple Israel’s less than full-size grand being complemented by M. Aubrun’s bold, assertive playing, with a quite small amount of vibrato, and Ms. Tsan’s sonorous underpinning.

Haydn maintains the overall serenity and even pacing of the variations into the warmly beautiful second movement Poco adagio, where some added hush in the first repeats gave what is already dolce cantabile an extra inwardness. All of this made the Rondo all’ Ongarese finale’s outburst of activity even more arresting and joyous. This trio is generally regarded as Haydn’s most popular, due to the Hungarian or, to give its usual nickname, the “Gypsy” element, and the players gave those minor-key episodes between the twinkling main rondo theme the full earthy, foot-stamping treatment, bringing the beaming audience to its feet for the first, and not the last, time. 

Ernest Chausson by P. Frois, c.1885,
Bibliothèque nationale de France.
This irrepressible Classical opener preceded a latish Romantic work that gave the lie to another wrong assumption—that the German/Austrian template for large-scale multi-movement instrumental music was somehow inimical to a truly French musical sensibility. This was anything but true for Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), whose Piano Trio in G minor Op. 3, though composed in 1881 and thus early in his tragically truncated career (he was the only composer of note to meet his end on an out-of-control bicycle), is as architecturally cogent across its half-hour, four-movement span as any comparable work by Schumann or Brahms.

All three players made the most of the long, brooding slow introduction to the expansive first movement, Mr. Vanhauwaert somberly delineating the quiet rising arpeggios that introduce the ‘cello’s début motif, here grindingly sinister in Ms. Tsan’s hands, followed by the strong clean descending line of M. Aubrin’s violin. Then they launched the Animé main part of the movement, alternating between tight urgency and soaring eloquence (the intervals and harmonies in the radiant second subject always bring to my mind Bernard Herrmann’s sumptuous love theme in "Vertigo") before arriving at a truly tempest-tossed sffz final climax.

Though not labeled as such, Chausson’s Vite second movement is the work’s scherzo, alternating and interleaving scampering triplets on the piano with an arching melody on the strings that does intermittent duty as a trio section. The Assez lent slow movement is the emotional heart of the work, and the Temple Israel setting felt very appropriate for Ms. Tsan’s first unfolding of the elegiac main melody, which expands and evolves into an even more passionate version of the first movement’s second theme. 

Here, and in the finale as well, Chausson thus tightens and heightens the work’s overall unity and dramatic intensity by adopting the cyclic form often used by his mentor, César Franck. Initially animated and optimistic, the finale becomes increasingly turbulent as melodic elements from the first movement thrust themselves back in, climbing to a pitch of intensity on both strings, underpinned by fistfuls of hammered piano chords, before collapsing into a short, bleak coda: astonishingly, this trio was Chausson’s first big instrumental work, and this performance wholly caught its power.

Watercolor of Franz Schubert by
Wilhelm August Rieder (1825). 
Only a few years older than Chausson would be in 1881, Franz Schubert reached the final and greatest flowering of his genius in 1827-1828. Some later criticism, however, painted him as being out of his depth when he attempted large-scale sonata structures to match those of Beethoven. There could be few better responses to this canard than the finely shaped account that these performers gave of his Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat, Op. 99 D. 898, when they returned after an interval of generous refreshments laid on by Temple Israel. 

They took the initial Allegro moderato quite speedily, driving the whole first subject complex in a single burst of energy before a dramatic (unmarked) slowing heralded a contrastingly spacious account by the 'cello and then both strings of the second subject, over piano arpeggios as clean as ever in Mr. Vanhauwaert’s hands. Here, and indeed throughout the whole performance, the acoustic somehow emphasized how elaborate and demandingly soloistic Schubert’s writing often is for all three players. 

There was no first movement exposition repeat, and once again a quite fast tempo for the start of the second movement Andante un poco mosso, giving the movement a wistful, strolling ambience, though later with plenty of dynamic light and shade and subtle, easeful use of rubato. The propulsiveness continued in the remaining pair of movements, rounding the whole performance off at an exceptionally tight 36 minutes or so. 

As with all supremely great music, interpretative differences only bring into focus further facets of an inexhaustible whole. While Schubert’s First Piano Trio can easily take a more expansive, searching approach, this deliciously airborne performance, conceived and performed as by three pairs of hands coordinated through a single mind, was perfect in context. 

To conclude, the trio returned for an encore: welcome, though hardly required given the plethora of riches they had already delivered. This was the Andante con moto tranquillo second movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49, and their affectionate account of its radiant song, in the Temple Israel’s analytical acoustic, showed how different Mendelssohn’s warm, homogeneous writing for this combination of players is from Schubert’s often challenging exploration of them as individuals.


An Afternoon of Chamber Music, Temple Israel, Long Beach, April 7, 2019.
Images: The performers: Linda Pelteson Wehrli; Haydn: Wikimedia Commons; Chausson: Wikimedia Commons; Schubert: Wikimedia Commons; Temple Israel: Courtesy Ceilings Plus.

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