in: Reviews

July 18, 2016

When She Was Good…

by

The Horszowski Trio has performed in the Hudson Valley area before, but it made its Maverick Concerts debut on Sunday, July 17. It is an ensemble of many strengths, but also a couple of weaknesses which prevented these ears from enjoying its work unreservedly.

The program was splendid: a relatively unfamiliar romantic work (Schumann’s Trio No. 2), a contemporary piece (Joan Tower’s “For Daniel,”) and a superb warhorse (Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio). The Schumann performance was finely judged, enthusiastic, and generally quite well balanced–but not always. In parts of the music, particularly the third movement, the piano overbalanced the strings, not blotting them out but taking attention away from their crucial parts. I’m inclined to blame this problem on the string players, violinist Jesse Mills and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan. Pianist Reiko Aizawa was playing full out with the piano lid open, but she did that frequently throughout the concert and most of the time the strings were perfectly audible and out front. Whatever the cause of the problem, the performance was excellent overall and made a convincing case for this first-class Schumann work.

Joan Tower was on hand to introduce her “For Daniel,” which she did with typical charm and grace. (“I hate being on the same program with Beethoven,” she said with a smile.) There are no smiles, charm, or grace in this emotional, tragic music, a response to the death of a favorite nephew from a progressive lung disease. An accomplished pianist herself (she used to play frequently with the Da Capo Chamber Players, which she founded, at Bard College), Tower knows how to write powerful virtuosic outpourings for the piano without overbalancing the strings. She leaves them out of such passages! This piece has become one of Tower’s “Greatest Hits” with excellent reason. The Horszowski Trio performance was vivid, expressive, and compelling, but revealed another occasional flaw in the group’s playing: Aizawa’s tendency to play loud passages, especially in the upper octaves of the piano, with tonal quality that became flinty to downright unpleasant.

Jesse Mills, Joan Tower, Rieko Aizawa and Raman Ramakrishnan (BMInt staff photo)

Jesse Mills, Joan Tower, Rieko Aizawa and Raman Ramakrishnan last year in New Hampshire (BMInt staff photo)

Aizawa’s sound didn’t ruin the Tower, but it gave my ears some serious problems in the Beethoven. The ensemble’s conception of this masterpiece was well-judged and full of life throughout, with an especially lively reading of the finale. But too often I found myself flinching at the edgy nature of Aizawa’s tone, enough so that it distracted me from the positive qualities of the performance. It’s not as though this pianist can’t play beautifully. She certainly can, and most of the time her tonal quality was quite lovely. But, for example, when she hit the chord that links the third and fourth movements, I can only describe that sound as aggressive if not downright unpleasant.

So, a mixed report on the Horszowski Trio. Having heard Horszowski play in person more than once, I find it hard to believe that he would have tolerated a pupil of his making nasty sounds at the keyboard. Perhaps Aizawa would benefit from thinking back to her student days.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

2 Comments

  1. I find this review completely off the mark. I happened to be at this concert yesterday myself, and I had a completely different impression. The trio was sensitive and glorious. Pianist Aizawa brought a full range of dynamics, but was never harsh! Perhaps you were sitting in the wrong spot, or woke up on the wrong side of the bed? The Beethoven calls for lots of contrast, and I felt she brought that to the performance. But I never thought the sound to be harsh. I guess it just shows that music is subjective, and we can all have our opinions. I look forward to hearing the trio again, hopefully soon. It was a wonderful concert.

    Comment by Simon Thomas — July 18, 2016 at 3:14 pm

  2. Seeing this review after attending the concert myself. I’ve been browsing the internet today for their videos. The Horszowski Trio is great. I agree with Mr. Thomas that this review is a bit off. Ms. Aizawa brought a variety of sounds, characters and colors. I noticed that the instrument was a Yamaha, which we all should be aware is less nuanced than a Steinway. I am an amateur pianist myself and I take note of these things. Aizawa should be praised for her command and sensitivity on this instrument!

    Harsh? Never! For example, Joan Tower’s piece was really intense, and they brought the energy and emotion which was required. I’ll bet the composer worked with them to get the sound she was after. Mr. Gerber, you also mentioned the chord in the beginning of the 4th movement of Archduke as an example. Well, I LOVED it. Ms. Aizawa brought the subito forte in a most effective way, with shocking effect. I can imagine that Beethoven would have enjoyed that big surprise, too.

    I am thankful for having experienced this concert and I was very moved by the performance. We can agree to disagree. I think they got it just right!

    Comment by Annabella Johnson — July 18, 2016 at 4:42 pm

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