I hope to be forgiven for my initial resistance to the “integrated” arrangement for piano and string trio of the Goldberg Variations presented by the Boston Chamber Music Society Sunday night. The pianist was Randall Hodgkinson, whose presentation of Bach’s masterpiece a year ago at Jordan Hall sticks in my memory for its tense, restrained passion. Why would he need to share the stage with three other musicians (Jennifer Frautschi, violin; Marcus Thompson, viola and Raman Ramakrishnan, cello) no matter how good they might be?
The entire work was arranged for trio by Dmitri Sitkovetsky in 1985, but the players divided the work about equally among Hodgkinson and the strings, allowing only a couple of moments of ensemble tutti. The opening Aria, played by the strings, conjured a different world than I had expected, depriving me of the expected percussive attack and quick decay of the keyboard. That fragile sound seemed almost as important as the notes themselves for conjuring the atmosphere of the work. Instead, Frautschi’s long singing line was unexpectedly robust. The natural hierarchy of strings, favoring the violin over the viola and cello, meant that the internal voices in the variations had unfamiliar weights, an effect amplified by the difference between Frautschi’s bright, declarative tone and Thompson’s dark, covered sound.
But as the performance progressed, the modest genius of this approach became apparent. The piece is both expansive and hermetic, and a solo performance puts heavy demands on both the listener and the performer. The pianist’s personality must be strong enough to sustain interest for nearly an hour of music remaining within the narrow bounds of the 32 bar theme, but cannot be overbearing. Relieved of this burden, Hogkinson’s energy was able to run free without restraint. Compared to my hearing a year ago [reviewed here], his playing was more urgent, more extroverted and driving. The arranger’s assignments of variations did not spare him any technical challenges, and tempi throughout were brisk. At times he almost seemed to get beyond himself, but was able to pull back just in time, giving a tang of danger to the performance. The trio’s playing was gracious and precise, and was predominantly cool where the piano was hot. This contrast cast new light and left shadows on variations that in a solo performance can blend one into another. The ability to see individual lines being played by the trio gave new insight into the intricacies of counterpoint, especially when they played the canonical variations, as one could easily follow voices merely by shifting one’s focus. Each shift from soloist to ensemble and back opened up the work. There sense of increasing drama and deepening emotion boiled over in the final “quodlibet” variation: all four players joined together as the work came to fruition, a joyful unification. Then Hodgkinson played the ending statement of the Aria with the same straightforward, unfussy approach he brought to the rest of the work; nevertheless it brought on nostalgia, even wistfulness, to have had that familiar sounding opening only arriving at the end, as if we had been waiting for it from the moment the work started.
Mendelssohn may be the most “classical” of nominally “romantic” composers, but his Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49, felt like a veritable stormy eruption coming after the Goldbergs. Frautschi and Ramakrishnan rejoined Hodgkinson. If the Bach had been all about contrast between the strings and piano, the Trio was about speaking with the same voice, the same sense of passion and energy. My seatmate called this “the dessert piece” after the Bach, but was really something far more intoxicating than that, especially in the first and second movements. As beautifully constructed as Bach’s meticulous counterpoint is, Mendelssohn’s equally well-constructed but less rigorous conversations were their own pleasure to watch; it was something of a game, tracking the musicians’ glances back and forth as they exchanged ideas with each other. Even the finale was exciting, a movement that in less inspired hands can be something of a death march of repetition. The audience at Sanders gave the Bach a rousing ovation, but was even more demonstrative at the end of the Mendelssohn. This was not a measure of one piece against another, but instead of the success of the program as a whole. One would not have guessed it on paper, but the two works together provided a remarkable gathering and release of tension, producing a rare sense of completion and catharsis.