Last September, the Claremont Trio took us to Russia in a program at the Gardner Museum that I thought engaged “the listener on a plane marked by a complete grasp of musical ideas combined with an intensely unwavering focus…” and that pianist Donna Kwong’s “comparable musical personality would easily turn twins to triplets.” (“Claremont Trio Play Russian Trios at Gardner in Memory of Leon Kirchner”)
The twin sisters are Emily Bruskin, violin, and Julia Bruskin, cello. This time (Sunday, February 21), during a sold-out concert in the Tapestry Room, we were to have journeyed with the Claremont Trio to France through the music of Debussy, Fauré and Ravel, the great French triumvirate that established one continuous stream of inimitable compositions from not-so-late in the 19th century to more-than-early-on into the 20th.
This, the Claremonts’ second outing at the Gardner, raised flags, though not the ones we might have first thought of or wished for. Whereas the French triumvirate traveled with intimacy, refinement, delicacy, perfumed atmospheres, sensuousness, colorfulness, the picturesque, and, in particular, with those ecstatic bursts or élats, this young and enthusiastic trio from New York embarked on a different route. Such a disappointment, as I was so looking forward to this second concert by the young, vibrant and very dedicated performers. Destination France, unfortunately, was not to be.
Le stile français all too quickly turned questionable: no savory escargots bathed in garlic and butter or other such hors d’oeuvres were delivered. After opening with Debussy’s Piano Trio in G, which was the best thing going for at least three movements, the New York trio’s playing settled into a predictable groove.
Were they going after “modernizing” these compositions? Cool, percussive pianism matched with edgy, aggressive string crescendos would indicate such. Tenderness in the lovely and touching second movement of the Fauré Piano Trio in D minor apparently was not the intent of the Claremont Trio. Rather, a very focused but disembodied Andantino birthed. But I did not get the sense that the Claremonts were bent on becoming deconstructionists either in shape or sound. A telling moment occurred when their playing of Fauré’s beautiful, highly personalized Andantino opening left no poetic footprint.
Promising cues could be found in the opening Debussy. In fact this early work, with its epochal glint of the French salon, and the New Yorkers’ outward reach bonded naturally. A kind of modernism they brought to his Piano Trio in G worked quite well making this salon music of yesteryear palatable, enjoyable. Other cues came from both Bruskins who continually interacted with expressive body language. Violinist Emily Bruskin often left her chair rising up as the music itself ascended. Cellist Julia Bruskin would glance over her shoulder at pianist Donna Kwong, who, however, never budged, always staring ahead at the score—another stroke of modernism?
With the Finale: Appassionato of the Debussy came more of the same, promising cues became predictable signs. Both body language and music-making remained within a far too narrowly focused gamut of expression. There were also technical matters that surfaced. Phrase-by-phrase playing resulted in overall structural weakness. Coarsely graded crescendos and diminuendos within the phrases and longer passages were in evidence throughout much of the program. Ravel’s colorful Piano Trio in A minor succumbed to a colorless, edgy reading. Viva la musique was not something that could be declared unequivocally.
“Travels with the Claremonts: Czechoslovakia,” their third and final concert at the Gardner is scheduled for Sunday April 18 at 1:30.