We had the remarkable Beaux-Arts Trio for a good half century. We’ve had fine trios made up of famous solo performers (Istomin-Stern-Rose and Kalichstein-Laredo -Robinson). More recently a crop of excellent younger piano trios has appeared on the scene—the Eroica, the Ahn, the Claremont. On Tuesday night June 17th, in the Rising Star series of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, the Neave Trio presented indications that another young ensemble is poised to join their ranks.
Judging from the remarkable performance on Tuesday, the festival’s confidence is not misplaced. The program consisted of three works of different periods (Haydn, Dvořák, Shostakovich) and more recent encore (Piazzolla), each of which was performed with both energy and elegance, with a lively projection of each different style, and with the kind of ensemble and expressive dialogue found in chamber groups of long standing.
The Neave Trio takes its name from a Gaelic word (“Neave” is a phonetic transliteration) meaning “bright” and “radiant.” The Trio was created in 2010 when violinist Anna Williams and cellist Mikhail Veselov, who had met while studying at the Longy School of Music and were placed in a string quartet together, joined with a pianist from Juilliard to try out life as a piano trio. The violinist grew up in the Boston area and already made a mark at 16 when she won a concerto competition sponsored by the New England String Ensemble, of which Susan Davenny Wyner was then music director. The cellist had studied in his native Leningrad, then came to Boston to pursue further work at Longy; during that time he was also a member of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Benjamin Zander.
Two years after the trio was founded, they were invited to become the ensemble in residence at the San Diego State University (a position they still hold). The pianist was unable to relocate, so in 2012 they invited Toni James, a native of Glasgow who was at that time completing studies at Eastman, to join them. This was a fateful decision, because in many ways it is the pianist who links the two string players and generates the essential personality of this kind of ensemble.
In Haydn’s 1790 trio in D major, Hob. XV-16, the very first notes played, a rapid piano figure upbeat bringing in the cello, Toni James acknowledgement by a smiling glance at the cellist Veselov, who would enter on the next beat, promised payment of full attention to Haydn’s wit. That single glance was a leading indicator that these musicians were entirely and naturally at home with one another, fully knit into a chamber ensemble that speaks with one voice, even though with many colors.
The first movement of the Haydn has two delicious moments (in the exposition and recapitulation) in which the thematic material is first heard in a bright and chipper D major, then threatens to get entirely serious with a turn to D minor, only to run into a dramatic and unexpected grand pause, in which one could almost hear Haydn telling himself, “No, wait. I’m Papa Haydn–mustn’t get carried away!” and immediately recapturing the original lighthearted mood. The finale, too, was filled with quirky sudden changes of mood and character, each of which became a delectable joyful surprise, with the elegance of the piece as a whole enlivened with the wit fully entered into by all three players.
Dvořák’s Trio in E Minor, Op. 90, gets its nickname, Dumky, from the fact that each of the six movements offers a different treatment of the form called a dumka (dumky is the plural form) containing at least two strongly contrasting moods and tempi. Some are vigorously countrified, some are quieter and sweetly sentimental. Most of the changes within movements appear suddenly and rather unexpectedly. The Neave players entered fully into the spirit of each time, sometimes sounding like a band in a village inn in full folk flair, while at other times sighing or weeping with a soft lament. All three players would seem to have been Czech natives in their enthusiastic and artful projection of this challenging but popular score.
Following intermission, Shostakovich’s E Minor Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 67, formed the meaty and darkly tragic last half of the program. Veselov, who was born in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was called during the Soviet era), prepared the audience for the starkness of the work’s colors by describing the period of composition inside the city, which was besieged by the Nazi army for 900 days, leading to widespread starvation. He had heard firsthand accounts of this terrible element of what the Soviets called “the Great Patriotic War” from his grandparents, who were among the inhabitants of Leningrad in the awful period. Shostakovich composed the work partly in response to the news of the sudden death of one of his closest friends, the critic Ivan Sollertinsky. Grief at the loss of his friend (to whom he dedicated the score) and the extreme hardships of people all over the country, but especially inside the besieged city, motivated the keening of the strings (beginning with cello harmonics in the top levels. Sometimes the piano pounded repeated notes while the strings saw away rudely in a scherzo that makes vulgarity the main mood of its principal section. Here the Neave players entered in with full attention to the violent assertive mood, completely breaking with any feeling that chamber music must be somehow “nice.” The third movement seems almost to freeze in a slow chord progression that establishes the theme of a passacaglia with poignant song in the strings. The finale offers the wide variety of materials that Haydn would have turned into a lively joke; in his very different context, Shostakovich jesting is bitter and ironic, ending in frozen horror.
The intensity of the Shostakovich performance grabbed the attention of the audience to an almost unbreakable level. Tensions exploded in cheers at the end of the work.
Continuous applause eventually convinced the trio to add one more piece: one of the movements of Piazzolla’s Four Seasons (of Buenos Aires), one of his most vivid tango compositions. This movement is part of a project that Neave Trio is undertaking to make video recordings of tall four “seasons.” In such video performances audiences certainly would gain much from visual confirmation of the Neave’s drive and energy and their complete physical as well as mental involvement in this yeasty score’s combination of popular dance with heart-searing expression of love and loss.
The Rockport event constituted essentially the Boston-area premiere of the Neave Trio in its current, splendid configuration. Though they are professionally based at the farthest corner of the U.S. mainland from New England, it is inconceivable to me that they will not soon be among the busiest chamber ensembles going, or in our case, I hope, coming.