Ellipsis Trio offered us three cathartic Russian trios Thursday night in Cambridge. In a thrilling concert from start to finish, Amanda Wang, violin, Patrick Owen, cello, and Konstantinos Papadakis, piano, delivered wonderful, insightful playing of challenging works by Arensky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.
Poor Arensky. A prolific fin de siècle composer and teacher, among whose students were Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, he died at age 44 of tuberculosis exacerbated by a dissolute lifestyle. His teacher Rimsky-Korsakov predicted “He will quickly be forgotten.” The prediction was not entirely correct and some of Arensky’s music is still heard, especially his chamber music and in particular the great Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor. Amanda Wang introduced the work by briefly noting Arensky’s place in musical history and the influence of Tchaikovsky whose Westernized style conflicted with Rimsky-Korsakov’s more nationalistic music.
In the opening of the allegro, we heard a warm, balanced sound from Owens’s cello in dialog with a highly textured violin from Wang and Papadakis providing an underlying foundation of structure and support in the piano. The development was mysterious and anxious, the recapitulation powerful, moving to a soft and airy coda. The sound was romantic, but rigorously self-controlled, which enhanced emotional expressiveness. The scherzo, which can sometimes sound like a trivial piece of fluff, was played with unexpected substance, alert, intelligent, creative, nervous and complex. Ellipsis really made it work. The adagio, marked Elegia, started with a grave and sensitive cello solo, moving to a beautiful duet with the violin, almost disincarnate in its purity, all supported subtly by the piano. It was clear that this was the heart of the piece, Arensky’s homage to his deceased teacher, the famous cellist Karl Davidoff. As though defiantly superseding the mournful elegy, the finale was bold and dynamic, with a modernist edge, marvelous cascades from the piano, before a brief return to the wistful opening theme of the Allegro. The work closed with a great surge, sharp, crisp and violent.
In his remarks Papadakis noted that Rachmaninoff was only 19 when he wrote the Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, and yet had a surprisingly mature grasp of that complex nexus of passion and disorder that Papadakis called “the Russian heart.” Still a student at the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff performed the piece before Arensky, his teacher. The somber opening theme is given to the piano and Papadakis perfectly evoked its combination of tenderness, yearning, hope and sadness. Wang’s violin and Owen’s cello joined in, surging together, tossed and pulled by unstoppable emotions. The development was dark and foreboding, interspersed with fitful chaos. An unexpected calm in the recapitulation promised self-possession but quickly transformed into a closing theme with dramatic upward runs in the piano, expressing grief mixed with ecstasy – the Russian heart. It all collapsed, inevitably, into a luscious funereal coda that walked “in beauty like the night.”
Owen introduced the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 by describing it as one of the most viscerally effective trios in the repertoire. It was completed in February 1944, During World War II and following the sudden death of his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky. The trio opened with a pleading voice facing desolation in the extreme upper register of the cello, joined by the violin entering two octaves lower, played to eerie perfection by Owens and Wang. With Papadakis’ piano playing at both ends of the keyboard, the effect was tortured and alienated, as Shostakovich intended, followed by powerful dynamics evoking uncontrollable angst and vitality combined. Subtle gray side-effects were made audible, like a scattering of ashes. The ensuing scherzo was energetic and brilliant, a frenzied carnaval, feeding on itself manically through violent twists and turns. The elegiac largo then plunged us into bottomless collective weeping, a wrenching sadness with no escape, the three voices seeming to be different aspects of a single overwhelming grief. Without pause, we were guided firmly to the last movement, a tragic dance in tribute to Jewish victims, evoking agonistic laughter through tears. The motion of the dance conveyed a desperate but stifled attempt to escape, the effort emphasized by muted strings playing fortissimo. The kletzmer element, evocative of Chagall’s most poignant images, infused the movement with a haunting ambiguity. When the perfectly classical chords in the piano tolled like a fatal death knell, it resolved into a dignified, hushed tragedy.
It is hard to convey how exciting this concert was. Let me add a comment on the performers’ brief words before each piece. They succeeded in kindling in the audience a vivid interest by being succinct. They limited themselves to singling out a key feature in each work that raised controversy or elicited empathy. The practice is a thing now, and the Ellipsis Trio handled it effectively and meaningfully.