The Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s impressive 36th season Thursday advanced as a strong piano trio brought splendidly varied music most audiences will not have heard very much. New York Philharmonic concertmaster Frank Huang, cellist David Requiro (soon to be a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center CMS Two resident artist) and pianist Gilles Vonsattel, a current CMSLC member, apparently disagree among themselves about what to call their group. Requiro’s web site lists them prosaically as the Huang-Requiro-Vonsattel Trio, while Vonsattel’s cheekily awards them the name Naumburg Trio, adverting to their each having won a first-place Naumburg medal.
At any rate, they began with Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat Major, WoO 38 from around 1790, before the master moved from Bonn to Vienna. While clearly showing the influences of Haydn and Mozart, it is nevertheless both inherently charming and strongly individual, giving hints of the composer’s unique gifts of motivic deconstruction. The first movement (of three) got a largely delicate yet sprightly presentation in a Mozartean vein. The second, Beethoven’s first scherzo, brought forth perfect phrasing and articulation, and the allegretto rondo finale featured a superb balance of elegance and bravura.
Written when he was 103, Epigrams (2012) was Elliott Carter’s last composition. (Carter was only the second-longest-lived composer, after Leo Ornstein, but this work must hold the record for the oldest-composed, Ornstein having stopped writing in his mid-90s). As the title suggests, this is a series of miniatures (12 in all) in which each part assumes its own personality, and each piece emulates something like a quip, many with witty punch-lines that upend a prevailing tone. The idea of individualized personalities for instrumental lines derives, of course, from the Ives Second String Quartet, but Carter made it a central feature of his idiom. We always thought Carter was at his best when letting his wit shine through, and these little items (sort of like Webern without the anguish) “positively wink…at you,” as a critic once remarked about the music of George Chadwick. Often the instruments are pitted piano against strings (one of them has the latter quelling a garrulous piano line), sometimes each atomistically goes its own way, and sometimes there are hints of lyrical tenderness (not something one often gets in Carter). The range of technical means employed was also formidable, and the threesome handled them sure-footedly. We’re not sure that Carter should be placed in the league of great aphorists like de La Rochefoucauld, but the trio, having immersed themselves in these, appeared to be getting, and communicating, their delight in them.
The first half concluded with another youthful rarity (the contrast between works written in youth and the one written in extreme old age was something Vonsattel commented on in introducing the Carter). Dmitri Shostakovich was only 17 when he wrote his one-movement Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, op. 8, —a kind of love letter to a girl he pursued, futilely, for a decade thereafter. Like the Beethoven, and perhaps even more so, it is remarkable for its insight into the compositional thinking of its young creator. There are moments of seeming passion and tenderness in the lyrical writing, yet with a bit of the detached irony one always expects; in fact, one tune the Trio uses would morph into the lyric subject of the finale of his First Symphony a couple of years later. The piece opens and continually returns to a passage of great warmth, notably well presented by Requiro, which alternates with a more frenzied rush of notes (ah, that adolescent angst). The players handled the many exaggerated expressions knowingly, and Huang and Vonsattel in particular applied considerable force where needed (Requiro could have used more edge sometimes).
It may come as a surprise to many, but one does not often hear performances of the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A minor, op. 50. A member of one distinguished European trio told us once that he hated playing the Tchaikovsky, and that many of his colleagues feel the same way; go figure. One fairly valid reason is that it is so long—most performances clock in at well over 45 minutes, some up at 55—and this puts a crimp in programming. It is somewhat unconventionally structured, with a full sonata-form first movement of mournful mien (it was written as a memorial for Tchaikovsky’s mentor and friend—well, most of the time—Nikolai Rubinstein), followed by a massive set of variations on a folk-like theme. That he wrote a trio at all was astonishing, first because he didn’t consider chamber music his métier and therefore wrote very little of it, and second because he was particularly averse to chamber music with piano and strings. The story is that Tchaikovsky refused a request for a trio from his patron Mme. von Meck for the latter reason; she got one anyway from her other protégé, Debussy. Still, Tchaikovsky saw enough merit in his that he brought it with him to the US in 1891, where it was performed at a reception for him in Washington.
In the opening movement the trio was admirably ardent without hamminess. Huang gave his part that characteristically New York welly, and Vonsattel contributed subtle phrasing and fine balance with the ensemble—no mean feat in this concerto-like part acknowledging Rubinstein’s formidable pianistic gifts. Requiro’s tone is beautiful and his vibrato commendably tight, but we hope that after three years with CMSLC he’ll have built up his bowing arm to match the likes of Huang. The second movement began with Vonsattel’s chaste rendition of the theme, followed by several mostly ornamental variations with some excellent sonic effects, like the sleigh bell tinkling in variation 5. The variations grow more elaborate and exuberant as the piece moves along, notably in the dance-form variations (waltz and mazurka) in which Tchaikovsky compounds the theme to create rounded forms, and also in the fugue in variation 8 (which the trio played rather roughly, as if they were essaying the Grosse Fuge). The pacing was well chosen yet offered some moments to linger on, like Requiro’s eloquent solo in variation 9, which is a balletic pas de trois. The mazurka (variation 10) was full of Chopinesque flourishes from Vonsattel, and Huang read variation 11 like a Sarasate or (anachronistically) Kreislerian bonbon. The climactic variation was full of vigor up to the crisis, in which Tchaikovsky turned the mood, and the key, around to the opening melody, finishing off with a funeral march that still moved (in both senses). Astonishingly, all this came in at just over 40 minutes, the fastest pace for the whole piece we’ve heard, without a sense of its being rushed. Others should take note of how this can be accomplished.