Ellipsis Trio’s meaty, event-packed Beethoven, Brahms and Dvořák at Cambridge’s First Church Congregational on Thursday night brought the kind of sturdy, intelligent professionalism one comes to expect, and be grateful for, on the Boston scene.
While it is hardly uncommon to encounter sets of early, middle and late period Beethoven, it is quite uncommon to encounter all of those in a single piece. That is exactly what the Variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” (“I am the tailor Cockatoo”), op. 121a, does. Originally written in 1803 (not really early period, as that year also produced the Waldstein sonata and saw him working on the Eroica Symphony) in the style of his earlier variation sets on popular tunes (in this case an aria from the 1794 operetta The Sisters from Prague by Wenzel Müller), for some reason Beethoven went back to it in 1816 and again in 1824 for publication (the last published Beethoven work for piano trio). Some commentators have thought the long introduction dates to 1816, while the fugal passage near the end and the coda represent 1824 additions. The end result is an object of fascination—a lengthy development section first, the trivial theme and fairly lightweight variations in the middle, and some parting thoughts reminiscent of the Ninth Symphony at the end. Violinist Amanda Wang, cellist Patrick Owen and pianist Michael Bukhman provided ample gravitas in the introduction, despite the obstacle of having to fill a large space with a baby grand piano. Elegant jauntiness came in the theme and variations and rugged forwardness in the concluding fugue and coda. Altogether, a convincing take on a weird and wonderful historical artifact.
Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, in the usual 1889 revision (thus making it both the first and fourth of Brahms’s three trios) stood as the artistic centerpiece. We’re grateful that for once the program notes work mention its US world premiere in 1855 (naturally, of the original version), arranged by pianist William Mason, who had befriended Brahms while studying with Liszt in Weimar. While tightening and correcting some technical flaws in the outer movements, the older Brahms did not disturb the melodic magnificence of this youthful work. It is interesting to compare Beethoven and Brahms in their approach to revising their early pieces—Beethoven boldly butting one style against another, like a Saarinen addition to a Christopher Wren church, Brahms almost imperceptibly pruning and straightening the original concept (a task made easier by the smaller difference between his early and later styles). It remains one of the glories of the chamber music repertoire, and Ellipsis gave it a mellifluous, lyrical, headstrong reading, with a nice touch of spookiness in the outer sections of the scherzo, gorgeous intertwining of the string parts in the slow movement (we commend in particular Owen’s well-judged portamento in its middle section), and a dusky throatiness in the finale. While the physical limitations of the piano impeded the resonance that would have been ideal, Bukhman made the best of a bad situation by focusing on clear articulation, notably in the trio section of the scherzo.
Though the final work, Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, op. 65 is not as often played as the ubiquitous Dumky trio (no. 4), it remains popular. It also marks an important inflection point in the composer’s output, showing a deliberate attempt to “get serious” and either minimize or somehow domesticate for Austrian audiences the Czech nationalism of his earlier work. F minor, a key composers often associate with stern earnestness (think Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata and Serioso quartet and Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony), invites furrowed brows, and in the opening movement Ellipsis dug into the mood, offering contrast mostly through lyricism (Wang) and warmth (Owen), with only Bukhman allowing himself moments of delicacy. The second movement quasi-scherzo offers some delicious cross-rhythms, but we found the strings too quiet here (trying not to overwhelm the piano?) to bring out the triplets, though they were forceful and rhapsodic in the trio section against Bukhman’s lovely tracery. In the slow movement (which some have described as a memorial to the composer’s mother), the playing by all was loving and gentle, with the “B” section a paradigm of suppressed passion. In the return of the “A” section Wang’s eloquence surpassed that of all her other playing on the program. The finale, generally delivered pretty much straight-up, did feature some excellent use of dynamic contrast, a technique this group doesn’t display quite as obsessively as some other performers. By the end (its 40 minutes could have benefited from a more aggressive editor than Dvořák himself) the F major coda was most welcome.