in: Reviews

July 2, 2012

Journey of Exploration with Surprises


The program opened with Spell by Per Nørgård (b. 1932), the dean of Danish composers with seven symphonies, three concerti, operas, and numerous smaller works — more than 400 to date. Spell was composed in 1973 and is based on a solo keyboard piece named Turn, with a weaving in of clarinet and cello; they played the arrangement for violin trio. The piece is based on Nørgård’s infinity series, an algorithmic method of generating melodies from various mathematical rules so the result is endless and self-referential. Elvekjaer explained in a brief introductory comment that the structure of the piece was inspired by Quantum Mechanics, with a slow, steady drip from the piano interacting with and gaining energy from the other instruments, exciting it into higher quantum states. The piece, he said, ends with chaos leading to a big bang, followed by expansion and dispersal. Be that as it may, one does not need the mathematics or the quantum imagery to enjoy the music: the piece was both lyrical and haunting, progressing by bringing together the threads being spun by the three instruments into more complex, unified and dramatic playing. The Trio played with marvelous balance and interweaving of voice at all dynamic levels, playing with total unity while maintaining their individual characters throughout. Spell ended with the voices evaporating into nothingness and a long frozen silence.

Quantum uncertainty carried into the performance of the Brahms Piano Trio in C minor, op. 101. It was almost a post-modern reading without a meta-narrative — Kierkegaardian, one might say, leaving more questions than answers. It was disconcerting at the time, but left one feeling that dark layers of varnish had been removed to reveal a totally different Brahms.  As with the late Beethoven, this late Brahms chamber work seems to distill things down to their essence. The first movement Allegro in this reading opened with a violent, dramatic four-note upward sweep, full of energy, followed by a soft and sweet second theme and an episodic reading of the development. The Presto was full of questioning, using tempo to create a feeling of suspense and  terse disquiet, while the Andante started as a sparkling homage to Mendelssohn and ended with a dialogue between the piano trying to maintain the tender feeling and the strings evoking waves of foreboding, ending in uncertainty. The finale, using the same four-note motif that pervades all of the movements, was even more forceful and assertive than the first movement, but with a bold twist. The piano tried to provide a master narrative but was constantly undermined by the strings, producing a dark and mournful foreboding that culminated with an assertive statement of deep uncertainty from the piano. The performance was exciting, provocative and unsettling, a disquieting but valuable experience.

The second half of the program was the Mendelssohn Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66, and it was a total delight in every way, from start to finish. The playing was absolutely gorgeous, with sound quality I’ve never heard before from a piano trio, subtle and supple, dramatic contrasts from fiery to languorous, a sweet flute-like purity from Soo-Jin’s violin, Soo-Kyung’s dark brooding and moody cello, and Elvekjaer’s piano either leading a headlong rush or dramatically slowing the tempo to hold onto the tender moments.

The opening Allegro, “energetic and fiery,” was turbulent and dramatic, starting with an upward struggle from the piano followed by a swift downward tumble; this restless up-and-down pattern is common to all three themes throughout the entire movement. The second movement, Andante, was played with infinite tenderness, as if trying to slow time to hold on to what is most precious. It was followed by a swift and nimble Scherzo “quasi presto,” at the same time delicate and steely, played with a whirlwind sense of mischief, strange textures from cello and violin providing freshness and edginess. Most delightful. The finale, Allegro Appasionato, started with a great yearning cello theme, taken up by assertive piano, unfolding with a piercing purity from violin, dark clouds from cello and sparkle from piano, with moments of magnificent density. The chorale theme eventually enveloped all, providing a vision of peace, embraced and accepted, but in this reading suffused with exploration and questioning.

In response to a well-deserved ovation, they played a hauntingly beautiful and sensitive rendition of the Elegia third movement from Arensky’s D-minor Piano Trio.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge who has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

1 Comment

  1. What a helpful review! I was at the same concert and found myself a bit baffled when the pianist told us that the first piece was inspired by “quantum mechanics..” (?!!?) I take your point to be that “giving up certainty” lay somehow at the core of the concert, forcing us to “hear outside the box”? I, too, was puzzled by the absence of “overall” interpretation given to the Brahms. So it is helpful to question my own assumption that there ought to be one at all (especially if we think of Brahms as resolutely resisting Wagnerian master-narratives…)

    I agree with you about “piercing purity” of the violin, especially in the finale of the Mendelssohn.

    Comment by Ashley — July 3, 2012 at 8:55 am

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