Twin sisters Emily Bruskin (violin) and Julia Bruskin (cello) formed the Claremont Trio with Donna Kwong (piano) in 1999 at The Julliard School. The Trio is based in New York City near its namesake: Claremont Avenue. Two Russian piano trios, which they recorded on the Tria label (their feminine variation of Trio?), appeared on their program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, September 20.
Anton Stepanovich Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32, composed in 1894, remains his best-known work for good reason. Its immediacy and its being a thoroughly 19th-century time capsule make the trio a treasure of its own kind from the first to last notes. Arensky studied under Rimsky-Korsakov. then taught at the Moscow Conservatory where Rachmaninoff and Scriabin were among his pupils.
The opening Allegro moderato missed on lyricism in preference to a panoptic offering of themes. Spaciousness and Romantic flair, though, became more evident the further the Claremonts pursued the ever familiar-sounding music. For sure, the second movement, a scherzo, frolicked all the way, never once letting up for a New York second; this, with big scares from the bass-end piano notes playing off with tiny intermittent sparklers emitted from high-stratosphere string harmonics. Surely, this movement turned out to be the favorite of the audience.
Refined fun along with all kinds of action in Arensky’s Romantic-era retrospective radiated from the trio’s extraordinarily disciplined playing and exceptionally staged presence. You could not miss a note given their individualistic deportment on trio playing.
Obviously, the three know this music inside and out. But for some reason, it felt as if they have yet to truly own the Arensky. A certain 19th-century feel seemed to elude them.
With the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 of Dmitri Shostakovitch (as with so many of his many pieces), it is near impossible not be reminded of the Soviet Union and the names of Leon Trotsky, his chief of staff, Mikhail Tukhachevsky — Shostakovitch’s patron — and Stalin. It might be said that the Shostakovitch piece’s grand expression is encapsulated in the eight chords which open the Largo movement: major (day), minor (night), diminished (tension) and others that become incrementally more dissonant. The trio dates from the war years, 1944 to be exact, just one year after Shostakovitch first met Stalin.
The Claremont brought the close of this trio to as a chilling and macabre a finale imaginable in its juxtaposing insistent, unrelenting Jewish tunes with stunning flashbacks to earlier movements. Feelings gave way to sonic imagery, thereby transporting the listener into spheres hardly ever visited. What made this so different an experience was that they did not dwell on creating emotional appeal, but rather relying on their musical smarts. And smart they are, super smart! Their performance took us a long, long way. It was remarkable.
Indeed, the Claremonts thoroughly engage the listener on a plane marked by a complete grasp of musical ideas coupled with an intensely unwavering focus. While twins violinist Emily Bruskin and cellist Julia Bruskin may not always show the same facial expression during a given passage, they do play like twins from a perspective of musical nuance and empowerment. But in this, there is a twist: enter pianist Donna Kwong whose comparable musical personality would easily turn twins to triplets.
There could not have been a finer and more welcome program, a brief but undeniably substantial one, at that, for a beautiful end-of-summer afternoon. What is more, the Claremont Trio dedicated their concert to the memory of Leon Kirchner, who died this past Thursday. Bostonians remember well the Sanders Theatre concerts with Kirchner conducting as much as they remember his highly personal compositions that include string trios which these performers themselves have played. Throughout the program, I could not help recalling Leon Kirchner, my teacher first at Tanglewood and then at Harvard. My feelings are the same as those expressed by Julia Bruskin in her introductory remarks, “We will miss him.”