Pianist Gilles Vonsattel, violinist Frank Huang, and cellist Nicolas Altstaedt presented a program of piano trios by Haydn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky last Sunday, June 21 at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. The Festival, under the artistic direction of David Deveu, looks to present the highest caliber of music by the finest musicians – this presentation of piano trios represents this mission perfectly. The concert opened with Hadyn’s Piano Trio No. 19 in F Major, Hob. XV:6, followed by Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 101. After the intermission, the trio concluded the concert with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50.
Consisting of only two movements, the Haydn Trio in F Major (1784) was an excellent beginning; lasting about 13 minutes, this piece was a light-hearted, witty opener to the difficulty and weight of the next two works. As Haydn trios are typically dominated by the piano, this trio is no exception. Pianist Vonsattel played through the runs and trills of his part with great agility and ease. When the melodic dominance of the piano at times gives way to the violin, like in the second movement, Huang presented beautifully phrased, sweeping melodic lines, exhibiting his excellent expressive and dynamic control. Smiling throughout their performance, the trio continued to play up the light-heartedness of this composition by not taking their interpretation too seriously; for example, the trio slowed down only minutely at ritardandos and cadences, not ending each section with an immense drawn-out conclusion. With both the audience and musicians settled into their seats, the Haydn Trio successfully set the stage for the two longer works to come.
The trio began the short, rhythmic phrases of the Brahms Trio in C Minor, Op. 101 (1886) with controlled power, confidently hitting each chord in perfect unison. The communication between these musicians was impressive; whether in conversation, counterpoint or unison, their playing was exact and unified. This was especially apparent in the concluding “Allegro molto” movement of the Brahms, where the strings often play accented off-beats against the piano’s steadier rhythmic movement. Another high point of this performance was the pizzicato of the “Presto non assai” second movement. Occurring both in unison and runs where one musician picks up where the other left off, Huang and Altstaedt played with great sensitivity and dexterity. Once the final chord had sounded, the audience leapt to their feet in a well-deserved standing ovation.
Bearing the inscription “To the memory of a great artist,” Tchaikovsky dedicated his Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50 (1882) to his recently deceased close friend and mentor, pianist Nikolai Rubenstein. To honor Rubenstein’s great pianistic abilities, Tchaikovsky composed the piano part of this trio in epic, almost concerto-like proportions, at times even overwhelming the violin and cello parts. Structured in two movements, an opening elegy followed by an extensive theme-and-variations built on a folk tune, the trio played with great depth and passion, portraying a range of emotions from heroism to despair, perhaps illustrating Tchaikovsky’s feelings when he wrote this piece.
Highlights of this performance included the continuous interplay between the piano and strings. Whether acting as soloist or accompaniment for the strings, Vonsattel played with great skill, accuracy and expression, seemingly unfazed by the difficult nature of his part. Huang and Altstaedt successfully provided a unified front against Vonsattel’s piano, with their lines often weaving in and out of one another, in imitative counterpoint or exact unison. All three musicians gave strong performances, resulting in their second standing ovation of the evening at the piece’s conclusion.
Each musician brought great talent and musical sensitivity to this performance. Through their careful attention to tempo, phrasing, rhythm and articulation, the trio’s presentation of these compositions was warm, approachable and inviting. In addition to being treated to a top-notch performance, the audience was also able to experience fantastic chamber music production by talented musicians who sincerely enjoyed their craft.
Elizabeth Perten is a doctoral student in Musicology at Brandeis University and also is pursuing a Joint MA in Women’s and Gender Studies. She graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University, with a BA in Music.