The Eroica Trio (Erika Nickrenz, piano, Sara Parkins, violin and Sara Sant’Ambrogio, cello) made its first appearance at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum since its expansion, in a wide-ranging program on Sunday. Back when the group formed (is it ungallant to say when? their web site won’t tell you, but we remember it vividly), its slinky publicity photos and onstage appearance were unusually attention-grabbing, though such style has since become much more common among classical performers. As more mature women they have lost none of their eye appeal. As to their ear appeal, the threesome endures as champions of the prototypical New York style—powerful, impassioned, theatrical, heroic. Their ISGM performance was built on repertoire that mostly suited this approach, including one premiere.
It started with the Beethoven Trio in B-flat, op. 11, the work that has forever tortured musicologists seeking the “correct” numbering of Beethoven’s trios. It was originally scored for clarinet, cello and piano, and as such is called Beethoven’s Clarinet Trio—in this form it is the more usually presented version. Beethoven transcribed the clarinet part for violin, and thereby created the controversy. One can safely leave that discussion to the nerds and wonks, but hearing it as a pure strings-and-piano piece does put it in an interesting perspective, as it smoothens out the sonorities (though in the process losing some bite).
It was written in 1797 as Beethoven was coming out of his studies with Haydn and Albrechtsberger. The fierce competitive spirit in him wanted to prove he could out-Haydn Haydn, with even more sudden harmonic shifts and dramatic dynamic contrasts. This presents a problem for interpreters, who are often likely to treat early Beethoven as if it were middle-period, a trap into which the Eroica occasionally fell. Despite Nickrenz’s commendably light touch and the engagingly brisk and peppy tempo the group employed, the first movement, especially its development section, exaggerated all the contrasts and deprived the movement of its Classical charm. Likewise the distended tenderness of the slow movement (again, not to slight Sant’Ambrogio’s plummy tone). The best of this performance was in the bumptious finale, one of the many variation sets on popular tunes that Beethoven churned out in this period. The phrases and attacks were meticulously planned and executed, and Parkins resonated with perfect control.
Elegie, op. 23 of Josef Suk, is a work not infrequently used as an encore piece, and it was good to see it given a proper, featured spot on a program. It was a re-scoring and abridgement of a 1902 work for six strings, harmonium and harp, and it occupies a transitional place in Suk’s output, between the music influenced by his teacher and father-in-law Dvořák and his later more chromatic and rhapsodic works. It begins with a lovely tune in the violin, which Parkins put forth cleanly and passionately. An agitated brief central section (maybe not quite raw enough in this performance) leads abruptly back to the opening idea in a more subdued vein. The Eroica’s playing was gorgeous throughout; for some reason it reminded us of dreamy Sunday afternoon concerts at the storied 92nd Street Y in bygone days.
The first half ended with the first performance of The Looms, a trio by New York composer Bruce Wolosoff, whose work we had not heard before. Now creeping up on 60, Wolosoff received a graduate degree at NEC, and has been an active pianist in both classical and jazz idioms. His compositional voice is decidedly neo-tonal, and perhaps fittingly, his inspiration for this trio, which Eroica commissioned, was a series of watercolors by the figurative artist Eric Fischl. As Wolosoff explained it, Fischl (who was also present) likes to come up with narratives behind his images, which were then Wolosoff’s points of departure for the music. While the movement titles (“Part One…Part Four”) don’t give much away, the paintings were presented in a clear, narrative sequence from “young love” through various degrees of relationship stress, to something looking a bit like a tussle—or at least something pretty ambivalent—at the end. “Very B minor” was Wolosoff’s takeaway from the last panel.
The music to accompany these scenes and the creators’ narratives (to be fair, Wolosoff encouraged an open-ended reading of them and solicited audience members to tell him later what scenarios they had devised) was largely on the anodyne side of current neo-tonalism. It avoids melodies that would be sure-fire memory hooks, achieves motion through rhythmically propulsive cells, and when a broad theme breaks out, as such a figure does in the first movement and finale, accompanies it with minimalist-influenced arpeggios and passagework. That’s not to say there isn’t any cohesion to it: although it’s difficult to be definitive on only one hearing, the basic motif of the second movement sounded like an inversion of that of the lyric theme from the first, and there may have been other deep-structural continuities as well. The pictorial aspects of the music were straightforwardly presented—the second picture’s posture of alienation was reflected in the instruments’ many unaccompanied passages, offset by and alternating with a big throbbing tutti. The third movement opens tenderly, and the violin and piano contribute little questioning, entreating phrases. There was something reminiscent of Piazzolla in the phrasing, with a heavy pop-influenced overlay. The last note of this movement was a B in the piano, which led to the finale’s B minor, swathed in uncertainty and with a jazzy propulsion. Someone should choreograph this piece.
While the self-conscious obscurantism of much modern music, especially before 1979 or so, did much to give “new music” the bad reputation with lay audiences it still has difficulty shaking, the opposite extreme can be almost as enervating, a feeling we tried but in the end failed to dislodge. It is, however, the sort of music that can be performed well at its premiere, since its objectives are clear and its technical means are not over the top. We’re pleased to report that the Eroica seemed as communicative and in control of the music as Wolosoff would wish them to be, as he seemed genuinely gratified by their strong and persuasive rendition, as was the warmly appreciative audience.
A fervent, rip-roaring performance of Bedřich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor, op. 15, an early work (1855) and his only piano trio came after intermission. While Suk’s Elegie commemorated a fellow artist (the writer Julius Zeyer), and was respectfully and decorously mournful, the Smetana Trio was born in fire, anger and anguish, memorializing his oldest daughter Bedřiska, the most musically gifted of his four with his first wife—three of whom died, followed shortly thereafter by his wife—between 1854 and 1856. The opening bars announce the motto motif of the whole work, an angular descending figure that became a protean one in Romantic music, finding echoes in pieces as disparate as Grieg’s Piano Concerto (1868) and Brahms’s Double Concerto (1887).
It is reported that at the premiere, nobody liked the piece except Liszt; and indeed, as brought out in Nickrenz’s performance, there is a Lisztian swoop and swell, as the music scarcely relents through the first movement. It sounded, too, as if Parkins had been listening to David Oistrakh’s searing 1950 recording, the intensity of her line was as formidable as a primal scream. The “scherzo” second movement (there is no slow movement as such) is one of those double-trio numbers, of which the first is an aching lyric tune that returns to haunt the finale, and the second is a Chopinesque death march. The finale’s principal theme shot out from these players like the proverbial bat from hell, con molto fuoco. The elegiac tune dances with it and is transformed by sobbing and rage. The performance was stellar, with precision and power in equal measure. The Eroica couldn’t leave the audience with such devastation, so sent it home with Sant’Ambrogio’s arrangement (quite nice actually, with some lovely counterpoint against Parkins) of “The Swan” from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals.