The Claremont Trio offered three works dealing with death, remembrance and grieving to open the season for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday. The Trio performed with remarkable clarity for each voice and impressive beauty as integrated.
Brahms wrote the Horn Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 40, in 1865, the year his mother died. Although the valved horn had come into general use by that time, Brahms specified the Waldhorn, or natural horn, which meant writing for the limited range of notes available to that instrument. Brahms wrote “I would be apprehensive about hearing it with the valve horn. All poetry is lost and the timbre is crude and dreadful right from the start.” Nevertheless, it was then and continues now to be played almost always with the modern valve horn. We agree with Brahms, it is nearly impossible for the modern horn to produce the magical, haunting, soft tone that Brahms wanted. Although Chad Yarbrough worked to keep it soft and Emily Bruskin on the violin did her best to maintain the balance, the horn dominated, especially in the first movement. Having said that, the andante was given a solidly romantic reading, not only emotional and subjective but valuing those qualities as important and beautiful. The scherzo was manic and frenzied, nicely grounded by Andrea Lam’s piano, with the balance among the three improved, allowing a strong contrast with the tzigane-like sadness of the trio section. The adagio had a funereal solemnity in the piano, the violin plaintive and the horn longing; overall, it was effective and moving. The finale showed a resurgence of vitality and joy, with a forward-looking trust in the future. The horn turned heroic, as though Brahms discovered that his compulsion to compose music was his mother’s living legacy to him.
What is the connection between music and magical thinking? Judd Greenstein’s music has a way of grabbing the attention right from the opening note and keeping the listener alert and engaged. A Serious Man was commissioned by the Claremont Trio and premiered in 2013. Inspired by thoughts about his uncle and family, Greenstein’s piece is thrilling. It opened softly with ethereal shimmering in Julia Bruskin’s cello and disjunct chiming in the piano. When the violin joined in, it bridged the two by introducing phrased structures, communicated to the cello. The effect was ravishing, forcing the listener to recognize that he was now in a sacred space, away from the ordinary and the profane, a space where disbelief was suspended and unexpected things such as conversations between the living and the dead became possible. The instruments tested their extremes, and together produced a sort of Darwinian entangled bank of feelings, emotions and impression, culminating in a cresting wave of memory that folded back to a return of the ethereal opening. A second, more cathartic crest yielded to an exciting interplay among the instruments. The playing was superb, with each instrument clear and distinct while creating coherence at every new step, conveying the insight that fusion is neither desirable nor possible.
Smetana’s first-born daughter Bedřiška was four years old in 1855 when she died of scarlet fever, leaving Smetana devastated. Composed the year of her death, Smetana’s Trio in G minor, Op. 15 is saturated with grief and emotional turmoil. It can be a deeply moving piece if played well, as it was here. Emily Bruskin’s solo violin opened perfectly with both grandeur and tenderness. The moderato first movement was marvelously integrated, heart-wrenching, elegant but full of human depth, with each instrument conveying its own nuance of emotion. Dynamics were used expressively and intuitively, with great rushes of emotion contributing to the power of the playing. The movement ended with an attempt at acceptance, falling into desperation. The second movement allegro was overtaken by memory. Played three times, it was interrupted twice: first by sweet remembrance, then by a surge of magical thinking that seemed to preserve the child’s soul from destruction even as the piano’s dark chords pointed inexorably to tragedy and annihilation. The presto finale alternated a manic, whirling, frenzied czardas with episodes of bittersweet memories. The playing was urgent, sweeping us into the tumultuous emotional whirlwind, culminating in a solemn funeral procession and then a miraculous apotheosis. The final three chords evoked an image of the child’s soul, no longer tied to earthly decay, rising to heaven.