If a group is going to adopt a name like “The Boston Trio,” with that provocative “the,” it had better be, you know, the definite article. Luckily, in this case there is no need to be concerned that the product will tarnish that distinction that New Englanders like to wield. For going on 20 years, with founders Irina Muresanu, violin and Heng-Jin Park, piano, and with current cellist Astrid Schween for the last few, TBT has delighted and challenged audiences with high-sheen performances of sometimes unusual repertoire. The concert on April 2nd at Jordan Hall as part of its resident status at NEC Preparatory Division, braced with a mix of familiar and unfamiliar.
To start out, two-thirds of them performed Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor (1892), a student work without opus number that preceded by two years the trio with the same sobriquet that is more commonly played. Muresanu and Park were complemented by cellist Andrew Byun, winner of TBT’s 2015 chamber music competition. A 16-year-old Korean native, Byun studies with Emmanuel Feldman at NEC Prep while attending Milton Academy.
The Rachmaninoff is elegiac by dint only of its composer’s Romantic ardency, Tchaikovsky having been in rude health at the compositional moment. (The second trio was written in the master’s memory a couple of months after his death in 1893). The first experiments a bit with form, being in just one movement, it doesn’t really attempt to encompass the three or four movements typical of a work in the sonata family (another such one-movement example is the Barber First Symphony). Rather, it is in an expanded seamless sonata form based on a motif that is a retrograde of the opening notes of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto (the program note assures us that, although this may seem obscure to us, it would have been readily appreciated by contemporary audiences in Russia). The music is astonishing for how much like “real” Rachmaninoff it sounds, with expansive tunes, lush harmony and plummy sonorities. Byun was solid in the ensemble, with fine technique and well-centered intonation, though his dynamic was rather more diffident than the ringing lines from Muresanu. Rachmaninoff, despite being one of the great virtuoso pianists of his day, kept the piano part well-balanced, though Park had several excellent opportunities to command in the occasional solo bits. Overall, the musicians’ approach struck us as somewhat clinical: it examined this curious artifact of an embryonic Rachmaninoff without a wholehearted embrace.
The first half of this short program concluded with the 1998 piano trio by John Musto, long a mainstay of New York, whose work doesn’t get played hereabouts too often (though TBT performed it in Rockport in 2013). The utterly charming work is generally bright and breezy, suggestive of Françaix and sometimes sounding a bit like Gershwin; the finale came on like a slightly warped boogie, with Rossiniesque and even tango embellishments. Though the music wasn’t as demotic as Bolcom sometimes gets, nor was it as self-consciously posed, though our colleague Peter Van Zandt Lane commended its artful structure in his review of the Rockport performance [here]. While moments of lyricism were abundant, the composer gives the players lots to do (Park’s part churned aggressively), and TBT (with Schween in her accustomed place) gave it a rollicking, entertaining, and empathetic spin. It deserves more hearings
The closer induced some audible sighs of affection from the audience: Brahms’s Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, in the now customary 1889 revision. It is little commented on (it certainly wasn’t in the program note) that this work was probably the first piece by a European master (well, who knew it then?) to receive its premiere in the US, this at the hands of the composer’s newfound friend William Mason, who brought the manuscript back with him in 1854 and quickly arranged a performance in New York with Theodore Thomas on violin and Carl Bergmann on cello. This original version of the trio is scarcely ever performed any more; the revision tightened the outer movements and gave them all the intensity of mature Brahms, while leaving the inner movements essentially as they were. Thus, to hear op. 8 now is to hear old Brahms commenting on his young self; but the amazing thing is to hear how much the 20-year-old Brahms sounded like the 55-year-old one.
With the best tune stated right up front, few other pieces in Brahms’s chamber oeuvre are as thoroughly melodically driven. Brahms leads with the cello in three of the four movements, and Schween’s solo in the first was controlled, but with a lovely portamento. Muresanu had some soaring moments in this movement, which on the whole was relatively contained expressively. The scherzo displayed elegant delicacy, but was not quite as spooky in its outer sections as some versions we’ve heard. The trio (speaking of the midsection of the scherzo) was warm and gemütlich. In slow movement, Park’s glacial monumentality in the outer sections played up the contrast with the strings’ endearing enticements, conjuring the world of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto without the latter’s narrative structure. The “B” section, again led by the cello, was a feast for the ear (we think that Brahms put more beautiful material into the cello parts of his trios than he did in his cello sonatas!). The unusual minor-mode finale (much less common than major-mode finales to minor-mode sonata-structure pieces) went with a fairly relaxed tempo that facilitated a golden glow in the strings, but could have done with a bit more tension.
What struck us most overall about TBT’s performance Thursday was a tightness and control of expression that sets it apart from both the Romanticism of earlier generations (think Beaux Arts Trio) and the sometimes theatrical exaggerations of some of the newer groups. While we were happy to have Rachmaninoff dried out a bit, and Musto was right in keeping with TBT’s approach, something about the Brahms left us wishing for some of the old sauce.