in: Reviews

March 15, 2013

Trio’s Fine Display of Technical Prowess

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The Cleonice Trio is named, somewhat charmingly, for an Ellsworth, Maine restaurant, the group’s favorite haunt during their summers at the Kneisel Hall Summer Festival. More pertinently, the group, consisting of Ari Isaacman-Beck, violin, Gwen Krosnick, cello, and Emely Phelps, piano, are the Graduate Piano Trio in Residence at New England Conservatory, under the tutelage of Vivian Weilerstein. The Cleonice performed its annual recital in Jordan Hall last night with two repertory standards and one self-commissioned world premiere.

They began with Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat, op. 70 No. 2. Most people have given up trying to number Beethoven’s works in this medium, but this one is the sixth of seven in the standard sonata-style format. It is also somewhat overshadowed by its op. 70 sibling, the Ghost trio, but it has elements of considerable interest: like the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, it lacks a true slow movement; similar to the the Eighth, it reverts to a minuet tempo for its dance movement, by contrast, as in the Seventh, the minuet embraces the multiple-trio format. And another item shows up right at the beginning, in the slow introduction to the first movement. In our favorite performances the sound of the introduction extends the spooky world of the Ghost, the better to offset the genial opening of the Allegro ma non troppo. This, however, was not the approach the Cleonice took; theirs was a gentler, less edgy, and frankly, a more prosaic reading.

The group seemed to have some difficulty getting its interpretive act together in the first, and even into the second, movement, sounding as if they were playing the work as early rather than middle period Beethoven, with insufficient subtlety in dynamics and phrasing. While the trio played with impeccable technical prowess, including inerrant intonation and finely tuned ensemble, there were also discrepancies in individual musical personalities that went beyond the bounds of what a tight ensemble should permit. Specifically, whereas Isaacman-Beck and Phelps were regally Apollonian in deportment and well balanced sonically, albeit on the diffident side (we had some trouble hearing Isaacman-Beck clearly, but we think, based on reports from elsewhere in the hall, that this was an artifact of our off-axis seating position), Krosnick’s Dionysian mien together with her voluminous and reverberant sound threw the sonic balance off, just as her highly kinetic body English commanded the bulk of visual attention. We wish her well in sonatas and concertos. Things did improve markedly in the third and fourth movements, with the former’s splendid melody—one of Beethoven’s nicest—lovingly caressed, especially by Krosnick, and here with very fine crafting of phrase endings, and the latter with sharper edges and a good sense of momentum.

Richard Wernick’s Piano Trio No. 2, which received its world premiere last night, was commissioned by the Cleonice. With much enthusiasm Krosnick spoke of her relationship to the 79-year-old Pulitzer Prize composer (naturally enough, they met as a result of the Juilliard Quartet, of which her father is the cellist,) about the work’s construction (based on a B-E-A motif on the name of Wernick’s wife,) and about its character, which, she stressed, combined wit and sentiment across its connected movements.

Wernick is not a composer with whose work we are very familiar. In a discussion of a string quartet performed a year ago we noted that his idiom, somewhat like Andrew Imbrie’s or, we might now add, the early work of his contemporary Easley Blackwood, combined orthodox modernism with the forms and expressive ethos of older musical traditions. This trio proved no exception. The B-E-A motif was everywhere in evidence, and the impeccably skilled writing contains some arresting and appealing elements, such as the melodic arc of the strings in the first movement carried over a steady rhythm of eighths or sixteenths in the piano (a bit like the finale of Brahms’s third piano quartet); the haunting sonorities in the second movement of muted violin against quiet spiccato in the cello and spare piano punctuation. There were nevertheless mysteries about the piece that left us uneasy: nobody ever explained the work’s subtitle, “The Traits of Messina.” So which of Messina’s traits did he have in mind, and what’s Messina to Wernick or Wernick to Messina that he should punnishly anagram its strait (we’d have asked him, as he was there and received hearty applause, but was gone by the time the concert ended)? And we wondered about the wit and sentiment, and especially about the promised “barn-burner” finale that, with all its pauses and longueurs, never seemed to materialize. No work, especially by an established master like Wernick, should be judged on one hearing, and we will not presume to do so here. We can only report that for us it had limited curb appeal, despite the obvious intensity of the performers’ feelings for it and their highly skilled performance (from which we would single out Isaacman-Beck’s superb harmonics). If NEC puts this program on its Instant Encore site (check here every so often to see if they do), we can all get enough ear time with it to venture conclusions.

After intermission, the Cleonice concluded with Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat (lots of E-flat Thursday evening!), op. 100/D. 929, one of his most sublime achievements, and like the Great C Major symphony and the B-flat piano sonata one of those “heavenly-length” pieces that essentially set the agenda for Romantic musical practice. A “normal” performance of this work requires between 45 and 50 minutes to suss out the layers of pathos lurking within, not just alongside, the jaunty and serene moments. The Cleonice clocked in at just over 40, having diligently taken all the repeats.

But first the good news: the sonic balance after intermission was, in the words of Gunther Schuller, “much improved.” The opening arpeggiated motto theme of the first movement was robust and well contrasted with the bridge and lyrical second subject, and the phrasing and dynamics were well thought out and executed. We were impressed by Phelps’s precision and evenness in the many scalar runs here, and in the second movement’s grim march; by Isaacman-Beck’s singing line; in Krosnick’s gorgeous solo in the second movement; in the meaty way both strings took the scherzo’s double-stopped trio theme; and the Mozartean poise with which the group presented the rondo theme of the finale—making us think of the bland refrain “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today” that masks an unfolding tragedy—offsetting the stormy Romantic waters otherwise tossing this movement. The bad news goes back to that timing: the trio kept rushing off to the next big moment, and showed little inclination to dwell on that essential Schubertian quality of tears within laughter that makes more knowing, sensitive performances so soul-wrenching. Our takeaway from this program, then, is that while the Cleonice Trio has formidable chops, and promises a brilliant future; to fulfill that promise will require more reflection and deeper digging into the heart of the repertory.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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