The grand ballroom of the Elms mansion in Newport resounded on Tuesday with a quadruple affinity of player, composer, instrument and space; the room positively blossomed when the Vienna Piano Trio opened a delightful 11 AM concert for the Newport Music Festival. The Enlightenment execution of Haydn’s Piano Trio in E Major H.15 No. 28 somehow achieved an inevitable congruence with the environs, as the VPT’s evocation of the classical style awakened the Gilded Age paintings and reliefs of nymphs and shepherds; Stefan Mendl coaxed an apposite woody affect from the 9-ft Yamaha. On the 50th anniversary of his hatchment, the pianist found yet another way to share wisdom accumulated over his long career. Through Mendl’s prestidigitation, one could easily imagine the tones of the English piano by Clementi which the master purchased during a London sojourn; such instruments were warmer and more powerful than the bright but delicate ones of his native Vienna/Eisenstadt.
The violin playing of the ensemble’s latest addition, David McCarroll, immediately rose to our notice in this trio, since Haydn assigns the cello a mostly supportive role. Though he remained alert to when the composer directed his spotlight elsewhere, the violinist’s bright tone often dominated, especially against the rather dry piano. That McCarroll was capable also of darkly luscious colors only became apparent in the subsequent Brahms.
Throughout the morning event, VPT produced, through experience and perfection of technique, dialectics which admitted us directly into the mind of each composer. It was especially interesting to hear their alertness to the Zeitgeists of their two very different Landsmänner.
To Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor (1886), the threesome brought a soundworld dense yet permeable. Passionately grappling with the later master’s grand emotions with generous portamenti and wider vibrato, the players surged with waves of yearning and consolation. If there is such a thing as a Viennese style, it paraded past us with corsets unlaced. Mendl’s arsenal included rippling Donau shimmers as well as symphonic ferocity. Yet his intellect kept, as Grillparzer might have said of Beethoven, alles in ordnung.
One could hardly credit Frank Bridge as the major teacher of the more inward Benjamin Britten on the basis of the former’s hyper-romantic Phantasie in C Minor for Piano Trio. Fit more for a stormy night at the Breakers than a genteel morn at the Elms, the one-movement six-section work, except for a cleansing fairy dance, revved in emotional waves of balls-out* expressionism surging on the rockbound shore. It provided stirring solo opportunities for cellist Matthias Gredler, whose generous sonic effusions contrasted with a quietly intense countenance.
Maurice Ravel’s single venture into the piano trio summoned from VPT an elegance and tender clarity that relieved us mightily following the Bridge. After the piano introduced the first theme almost sans expression, McCarroll came in tenderly, soon breaking into a scamper which unfolded with a quicksilver brilliance and delicacy that were entirely his own. The manner in which the players lilted with the F major tune of movement II, Pantoum (Assez vif in both 4/2 and 3/4), served as a luxury gondola conveyance. In the next movement, the first theme gets tossed back and forth with swelling passion before fading to a quiet place. The animated Final perorated to a powerful close.
Recalled twice, the Trio encored with the first movement of Brahms’s Opus 8 in its original (1854) form, altogether securing the required moto, brio, and tranquillo elements.
The Newport Festival would be wise to bring in more established ensembles. Such levels of interpretative perfection as we heard Tuesday can seldom be attained by the festival’s more typically ad-hoc assemblages.
*Refers to the governor on a steam engine
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.