Triple Helix, the longstanding locally-based piano trio comprising Bayla Keyes, violin, Rhonda Rider, cello and Lois Shapiro, piano performed Brahms at the Tsai Center on Thursday at BU’s College of Fine Arts as a benefit for the University’s chapter of Music for Food, a program started a few years ago by violist Kim Kashkashian to raise funds to stock area food pantries.
The first of only two works presented, the Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 was the composer’s second essay in the form, coming 30 years after his previous example, though there is an even earlier trio generally attributed to him but not published in his lifetime. Written in 1882 at about the time of the second piano concerto and the third symphony, the second trio indulges to a much greater extent than the first in rhetorical flourishes of a nearly symphonic nature, though it carefully balances them against many passages of great intimacy and tenderness. This latter feature is what makes the Brahms chamber œuvre, for this listener, the avatar for its entire species.
It’s sometimes a good thing not to read the program notes too carefully before listening to a performance, since the advance commentary all too often inculcates a sort of confirmation bias in the listener. After the fact, though, it can be useful to, as it were, compare notes to make some sense of the interpretation one has just heard. That was especially true here, where Shapiro’s lucid commentary concealed nothing about the performers’ intentions. Thus, in the first movement, it was as clear from reading as from listening that the prevailing ethos would be to emphasize the “public” aspects of the music, mostly deriving from the arpeggiated contours and dotted rhythms of the main theme. Shapiro and the strings in unison proclaimed that theme forcefully enough; Keyes contributed a muscular, forward sound. There may not have been full unanimity on the interpretation, though, as from what we could hear (sadly, the Tsai’s parched acoustic swallowed up a vast amount of the cello’s sound) and certainly from what we could see, Rider was taking a softer and suppler line. The playing was technically excellent (there are many typically Brahmsian snares in the rhythm, especially in the piano part), but it struck too stentorian a posture for our taste. While Shapiro loosened up considerably in the slow movement variations, and made very lovely noises, we found Keyes a bit less nuanced in the line than we’d prefer (in all fairness, the theme, which contra Shapiro’s note we didn’t find especially Hungarian in flavor, is a rather austere and formal one whose variations mostly stick closely to its contours), while the warmth of Rider’s tone was again partly undermined by the distance the hall put between it and the listener. The scherzo (or at least the “A” section; the trio is plushly Viennese) is rather unusual for Brahms, going like a whirlwind. What Shapiro saw, and therefore played, as spooky and chilling we regarded as almost Mendelssohnian; in his comprehensive survey of Brahms chamber music Daniel Gregory Mason gave this movement barely a sentence and used the term misterioso—you pays your money and takes your choice. Mason also gave short shrift to the finale, thinking its thematic materials inferior. In the event, Triple Helix took an interesting, more subdued approach to the theme than others we have heard, the better to contrast with the ebullient following phrase. There were nice contrasts of dynamics throughout, and the conclusion was a satisfying one.
The other work on the program was the formidable and stormy Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, in which the trio was joined by violinist Hyun Jung Kim, a Korean who received her MM from NEC under Donald Weilerstein and is now a DMA student of Keyes at BU, and her compatriot, violist Hye Min Choi, who also did graduate work at NEC and BU, where she continues working with Michelle LaCourse. The Quintet is sufficiently familiar that not a lot of description is needed, so we will observe here that the group began it with a masterful crescendo up to a rousing statement of the principal theme. In addition, they displayed admirable balance between the strings and piano (we remember reading about a Russian theoretician who concluded that it is impossible to write chamber music for piano and strings because of the balance problem—to which we respond that he should just listen to better performances), and between the bravura and tender passages. Shapiro was especially helpful here by declining to accept the role of concerto soloist. The intimate feeling was (to the extent the hall permitted) well presented in the slow movement, while its middle section was strongly read, leading to a passionate and beautiful restatement at the end of the movement. The fiery scherzo got off to a great start with a nearly silent yet high-tension introduction from Rider. There were some clearly deliberately rough patches in the string playing as this truly spiky movement progressed, with a gloriously relaxed feel in the trio. The finale began with intense throbbing in the strings, and had some really fine moments, especially in the build to and execution of climaxes (the final one in the coda was especially fine), though things got a little scraggly in the bits in between. Throughout this work Brahms wrote a prominent viola part, and we would be remiss if we didn’t single out Choi for her wonderful tone, expression and poise. This is someone to watch. Sadly, Brahms wasn’t nearly as generous in this piece to the second violin, but from what we could hear, Kim produced a fine singing tone.
For what it’s worth, we suggest that chamber ensembles, especially small ones like trios, think about positioning themselves on Tsai stage in a way that projects sound better—maybe more to the front, maybe with additional reflective material behind them. The hall was not built for intimacy, that’s for sure.