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Trio Offers Fabulous Four


On Saturday night, the Tetzlaff Trio brought its North American tour to a close at Jordan Hall for part of Celebrity Series of Boston. Superstar violinist Christian Tetzlaff; his sister, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff; and pianist Lars Vogt performed Robert Schumann’s Trio No. 2 in F Major, Op. 80; Antonin Dvořák’s Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90 (“Dumky”); Johannes Brahms’s Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, and a short encore. The three trios arrived with fastidious attention to detail, impressive technical skill, and marvelous musicianship.

Robert Schumann wrote his second piano trio in 1847, at the same time as the better known trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 63. The stormy first trio has been a favorite among audiences and performers alike; it is easy to read the stresses of Schumann recovering from his 1844 bout of “nervous prostration” and the deaths of his 16-month-old son Emil. It’s harder to read biography into the second trio, though Schumann’s recovery of his compositional genius through a study of the music of J.S. Bach shows in the second Trio’s contrapuntal diversity. Musical ideas chase each other in canon, or divide between instruments, or play out in three-part fugato.

This compositional density was handled brilliantly by the Tetzlaff Trio. They shaped phrases and brought out off-beat accents to nicely punctuate Schumann’s unexpected harmonic twists and turns. Each of the three masterfully handled the composer’s rapid-fire switches of the line from melody to accompaniment and back again, switching dynamics and boldness of phrasing to render the musical argument clearly and join lines seamlessly as they jumped from one instrument to the other. The group clearly exists in a mutual comfort zone (as one might imagine when the string players are siblings), watching each other like hawks at key moments, balancing their tones beautifully, and combining to form impeccable unisons. They deployed a wide dynamic range, exploiting violinist Christian’s remarkable ability to phrase crisply and articulately at the quietest of dynamics (in particular in the second subject of the slow movement and the shimmering pizzicato conclusion of the third movement Scherzo, which drew appreciative gasps from the audience). Dramatic changes of character and a vigorous, impassioned conclusion to the fourth and final movement drew the Schumann to a magnificent conclusion.

In 1890, Antonín Dvořák broke from the standard four-movement sonata form for his fourth and last piano trio. Instead, he created a work based around the dumka, a Slavic dance form marked by abrupt shifts between moody melancholy and spirited exuberance. Each of the six movements is based on the classical version of the dumka form, earning this work the nickname “Dumky.” The Tetzlaff Trio gloried in the contrasts possible in this form. The darker segments were full-throated and dramatic, pauses were pregnant, and then Christian would start the new segment with the original tempo and the rhythmic percussiveness of a gypsy fiddle improvisation. The ensemble would pick up the pace bit by bit, with reluctant resistance, but gathering momentum until they reached a state of breathless exhilaration. The skillful canon, the variation in articulation, the kaleidoscopic moods made this warhorse of the chamber music literature sound fresh and novel.

The Tetzlaff Trio (Robert Torres photo)
The Tetzlaff Trio (Robert Torres photo)

Johannes Brahms’s 1854 first published version of his first Piano Trio in B Major reflected his close friendship with Robert and Clara Schumann. He returned to the work almost a half century later, rewriting some of the thematic material and tightening the construction for an 1889 publication. The sonata form first movement and the achingly beautiful third movement Adagio have themes that stretch on and on, generating more musical ideas without ever coming to a complete stop. The Tetzlaffs handled Brahms’s long-form conceptions brilliantly and beautifully without ever losing sight of the larger scale structure. Pianist Lars Vogt voiced the chords of the Adagio’s opening chorale-like segment with the masterful balance that marks a great Brahms pianist. The standout in this trio was cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, who delivered Brahms’s soaring cello lines with soulful intensity. And on top of the ensemble’s impressive skills, in the second movement Scherzo, I thought I heard the Tetzlaff siblings abruptly shift from quite loud to barely audible in mid-stroke, without lifting or changing the speed of their bow arms. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a group pull that off as seamlessly as they did. And in the finale, they captured Brahms’s sense of restless melancholy, moving from brooding intensity to impassioned fervor, bringing the Jordan Hall audience to its feet.

Reasoning that “there’s never enough Dvořák,” Christian Tetzlaff launched the second movement Allegretto grazioso from the Czech’s Piano Trio No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 65 as the encore. They gloried in the asymmetric phrases, always a little rhythmically off kilter, and played a more conventional Scherzo type movement with vigor and abandon. Applause descended from the crowd after the completion of the A section, then pianist Vogt mischievously grinned and started the Trio section, which featured snapping cello pizzicato and more weirdly syncopated violin phrasing. It was a nice summation of the evening—four warhorse representatives of the Central European chamber music literature given with a generous ear towards extremes of tempo, dynamics, articulation, and mood.

WCRB will broadcast the complete program on Sunday, April 24 at 99.5 FM, and will stream it here.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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