The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio was formed in 1977 by the Bolivian-born violinist Jaime Laredo, the Israeli-born pianist Joseph Kalichstein, and the Texas-born cellist Sharon Robinson, each of whom had already attained eminence as a soloist. As an ensemble they immediately rose to the forefront of piano trios, rivaled only by the now-defunct Beaux Arts Trio. Their steadfast refusal to adopt a catchy institutional name means that this trio will go on only so long as they do, so that after 33 years — though they are all still young enough to go on for considerably longer — one contemplates each new performance with a slight frisson of understanding that the opportunities to do so may soon register as collectors’ items.
In that frame of mind we eagerly snatched the chance to hear KLR perform in the Concord Chamber Music Series on November 21 to a sold-out house at Concord Academy’s Performing Arts Center. Their program could not have been simpler or more compelling: the two piano trios of Franz Schubert, both fruits of the composer’s last, unbelievably productive year and among the most-beloved and rewarding works in the piano trio literature. These two pieces epitomize all we think of as “Schubertian” —winsome melody, textural clarity, bittersweet harmony, and sincere pathos. At the same time, these works reflected, as Steven Ledbetter in his program notes and pre-concert lecture pointed out, the deepening of the composer’s technique and his ambition to break out of the rich but parochial world of Viennese salons to the wider German-speaking musical discourse, an ambition realized and exceeded only posthumously, of course, although the second trio was on the verge of publication when Schubert died in November of 1828.
The dilemma, such as it is, for performers of these works can best be summed up by paraphrasing an old commercial slogan: “Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Schubert.” Therefore, everyone comes to them both expecting pleasure and demanding perfection. We won’t keep you in suspense and will tell you right up front that KLR delivered as well as any live performance can do. There are just so many ways to dispense praise, and we are disinclined to belabor you with an exhaustive catalogue of synonyms. We will note only a few observations.
Number one is that this was an interpretively straightforward rendition: no fancy tempi and no eccentric rubati, although we thought some of the notated grand pauses might have been a little grander than usual. The first trio, in B flat, D. 898, is the musically lighter and simpler of the two, to which KLR lent the virtues of clarity, power and grace throughout. To us, the heart of this piece is the slow movement, an endearing and meltingly beautiful essay that encapsulates a lifetime in a few minutes. As is often noted, Schubert discarded his original slow movement for this piece and preserved the outtake, ultimately published as the Notturno, D. 899. The principal theme of the substitute, as rendered by Robinson and Laredo in alternation, was the soul of soulfulness. We also note with delight the gradual way the players introduced the theme of the finale, giving a slight crescendo before the “official” one, and the bravura tremolos of the strings later on. This is the sort of thing for which one pays, as they say, the big bucks. If one had to generalize about KLR’s characteristic attribute, it might be their breathtakingly subtle dynamic control and modulation.
In the second trio, in E flat, D. 929, KLR began (as they had done in the first trio) with a muscular bang. They seemed in the opening movement to stress Beethoven’s influences, particularly in connecting passages between themes. This piece is a longer and more involved developmental work than the B flat trio (to say nothing of its flashier virtuosity) but — and this is really our only negative remark about any of the performances— we don’t think that justifies omitting the exposition repeat. Again, subtle dynamic shading enhanced the dramatic flow of the movement, with Kalichstein cutting loose to a much greater extent than in the first work. Of him we can also note his remarkably deft pedaling, which was there but barely noticeable as such.
The second trio’s slow movement was a paean to dappled light — Gerard Manley Hopkins fans take note — and Laredo’s pianissimi were ethereal. His saltando bowing in the scherzo lent great, um, bounce to an already lively reading. The finale, like the Ninth Symphony a work of heavenly length, brought forth not only from Schubert but from KLR a summum of all the virtues that preceded it, whose conclusion brought the house to its feet.
A two-work program might strike some as a bit on the light side, even two gems like the Schubert trios, but KLR came prepared. As might be thought inevitable, their encore was the only thing their program omitted, the Notturno (not, of course, Schubert’s title). Kalichstein said that it was a better and deeper piece (we disagree), but too long (probably true) and complex (not sure) for the rest of the trio, making the substitute a better fit (that’s for sure). Notturno alternating serene and impassioned strophes represented Schubert in a nutshell and were a delightful way to illuminate the falling evening shadows.