Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Mendelssohnian Fire on a Friday

Members of The Los Angeles Ensemble: l-r Feng Bian, Joanna Lee, Bingxia Lu.


Los Angeles Ensemble, First Fridays at First!–fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Piano trios are the genre of the season so far in Classical Crossroads’ “First Friday” lunchtime recitals. Last month Tchaikovsky’s sprawling epic in A minor (reviewed here) needed a little surgery to fit into the given timeframe, but the October concert had plenty of space for Mendelssohn’s much more concise Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor Op. 66 MWV Q33, played by The Los Angeles Ensemble. This group frequently performs at South Bay chamber concerts, though on this occasion violinist Joanna Lee and cellist Bingxia Lu were joined for the first time by a new LA Ensemble member, the pianist Feng Bian.

Movements in Mendelssohn’s chamber works are often directed to be performed with great energy and speed, but it’s rare for him to crank it up a further notch and mark one to be played—as he does with this work’s Allegro energico first movement—e con fuoco. Fire is not the first attribute that comes to mind with this composer, so it was salutary to be reminded that on occasion there could be plenty in his belly. Right at the outset Mr. Bian grasped it with both hands, as it were, making his introductory arpeggios quite staccato, a nimbly urgent texture out of which the two strings emerged and surged as one.

Felix Mendelssohn, painted by Eduard Magnus
 in 1846, the year after he completed
Second Piano Trio. 
Ms. Lee and Ms. Lu took the foreboding main theme in a single eloquent sweep, but when they reached the warm major-key second subject their unmarked slowing contrived to give it a greater gravitas than it sometimes has, so that the melody seemed to partake more of the overall serious mood than the somewhat glibly reassuring effect it can have if taken up to speed.

The Ensemble maintained this sense of breadth and weight throughout the movement (allowing one to relish in passing how Mendelssohn varies his scoring in the recapitulation), and built up a terrific head of steam in the coda, crunching out the dissonance with which Mendelssohn masterfully reintroduces his second theme... but in the minor—con fuoco indeed.

The Andante espressivo that follows is in the greatest contrast, with a gently rocking, barcarolle-like quality that the LA Ensemble kept very much moving forward so that it seemed like a relatively brief interlude rather than a full-fledged slow movement. Similarly interlude-like is the Scherzo, which flickered and buzzed immaculately in these players’ hands like a small-scale fugitive from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though the Finale is marked Allegro appassionato, it has little of the fire-and-fury that binds the first movement, as though that had got out of the way all the work's real disturbance, leaving only a purposeful energy to chug along. In a usefully specific spoken introduction, Mr. Bian had noted that in this Finale Mendelssohn introduces a Bach chorale, Vor deinen Thron. Even in such a skillful performance, to my ears this veered to the sanctimonious (a reminder of why Mendelssohn was so revered in pious Victorian society), though Mr. Bian hammered out its final grandiose appearance with an urgency that tied it back to that con fuoco opening. 

Piazzolla in 1982, the year he composed Oblivion.
After this intelligently conceived and immaculately played account of the Second Piano Trio, it was encore time. For this, Astor Piazzolla seems be the go-to guy of the moment, and his familiar Oblivion, composed in 1982 for the movie Enrico IV, came across in this arrangement for piano trio (the piece exists in seemingly countless guises) as poised rather than sultry, with Ms. Lu delivering a particularly eloquent and soulful cello solo. 


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, October 4, 2019. Images: The players: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc.; Mendelssohn: Wikimedia Commons; Piazzolla: New York Latin Culture Magazine.

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