Opening with Schubert’s single-movement Adagio D.897, known as Notturno, the Benedetti-Elschenbroich-Grynyuk [piano] Trio delivered richness and variety on Sunday at the Gardner Museum. (Roughly contemporary with the monumental Quintet in C major and his Trio No. 1, D. 898, it is a substantial work in ABABA form that may have been a rejected slow movement of the latter piece. ) Choosing to open the concert with Schubert’s Notturno served the B-E-G Trio well, as it showcased how three highly autonomous soloist musicians have joined forces to perform with intense coherence but no fear of fusion. Taking the piece at the indicated pace, the three performers opened softly and tenderly, building the crescendo gradually, to the bold eruption of the B section, soft modulations in the piano leading gently to the reprise. The balance among the three was excellent throughout, as if each musician were nurturing a proper voice that was made possible by the two others. Leonard Elschenbroich’s cello expressed a sort of boundless and voluptuous pain; Nicola Benedetti’s violin was as pure and penetrating as Zeno’s arrow; Alexei Grynyuk’s piano was magnificently eloquent, as though charged with articulating the ineffable content of the strings’ outpouring of emotion. The combined effect reached the sublime.
In between starting and finishing his Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 87, Brahms wrote his Academic Festival and Tragic overtures, his Third Symphony, and his Second Piano Concerto. The trio is a forceful four-movement work in a compact 27-minute frame, the strings often doubled or double-stopped to balance the power of the piano. ElschenbroichBenedettiGrynyuk performed it masterfully too, bringing the three individual moods and characters to the fore without ignoring the multiple layers. At times almost transported by the music, Elschenbroich aimed relentlessly for the transcendent. Benedetti spread flames of tenderness mixed with shards of brilliance, her violin bobbing on the crest of raging waves. Grynyuk soberly held all together with unerring hands. The long first movement, sometimes described as sluggish, proceeded with inexorable forward emotional drive.
The ensuing Andante constituted the emotional core of the work, the performers bringing a memorable combination of lucidity, sadness, and nobility to the tzigane theme, followed by two piano-led variations, reflective echoes, supported in grim acknowledgment by the strings. After an eruption of grief expressed in loud dynamics, the 4th variation, marked dolce, was exquisitely pensive, and the 5th variation, dolcissimo, intoxicated with its beauty. Purged of grief, the performers approached the Scherzo with steady fingers in the strings and smooth and swift piano phrasing, lightly pedaled, infusing the fleeting, shadowy theme with a deathly quality, making entropy audible. They turned the trio into a gentle rather than a soaring love song, affirming life against disorder, again superb in balance. The brief return of the scherzo fled in gossamer, the decay sly and unstoppable, pervading all things.
The Finale featured vivacious, dancing piano, its staccato repeated-note figure imbued with rich semantic resonance, sweeping the strings along to a festive celebration, with pent-up emotion released in the recapitulation only to have the piano become reticent before unleashing the trio’s full commitment to the vast and affirmative ending. The B-E-G Trio had a vision for the Brahms piece, and delivered it insightfully and flawlessly.
Mark-Anthony Turnage composed Duetti d’Amore for (and about) violinist Nicola Benedetti and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich. It is a set of five miniatures, each lasting 2-6 minutes. Introducing the work, Elschenbroich noted that the composer may well have meant the title to be ironic. Indeed, the first Duet, a serenade, found the two strings sometimes almost together, then argumentative, then together again but sad, tired, breathless. The lyrical second Duet kept the two separately reflective, while remaining mutually attuned; the brief third, an Intermezzo, consisted of vivacious bursts, an opening of a domestic Pandora’s box of quarreling, projection, misunderstanding, resentment. An eerie pas-de-deux Nocturne followed, with somber bass line in the cello and high harmonics in the violin, oppressive and inescapable, almost nightmarish. The final Blues ranged from jarring to frenzied to obsessive dancing to contemplative, then fadeout; this did not sound like a happy ending. The work is fun to hear, and worth noting was the remarkable fullness of sound achieved with just violin and cello.
Ravel’s Piano Trio is one of the great 20th-century works for piano, violin, and cello, even if he completed the last two movements in haste so that he could volunteer to fight in World War I. Infused with the composer’s native Basque influence, the haunting opening theme in 3-2-3 meter anchors the work and provides the thematic basis for all of the remaining movements. Grynyuk opened with the memorable theme at the indicated modéré pace but nicely leaning toward allegro, probing and pensive. All three instruments joined in the clearly stated opening, working to an emotional second theme statement, the violin ethereal and the cello moody and telluric. A furious, full-bore quasi-development led to an ecstatic cello solo with a lyrical and expansive recapitulation. The pantoum began with emphasis on rhythmic complexity, the vitality of dance, then quickly moved to the sweeping and bold waltzlike motif. The reprise at the end featured even bolder, thrusting, sweeping gestures. The slow passacaglia opened with the piano statement dark and somber, joined by elegiac cello, with Benedetti’s violin singing sadly. Tonal quality throughout this funereal movement was exceptionally beautiful, building to a peak as a dirge, then turning celestial. A wonderfully metaphysical opening to the finale had the three instruments all doing different things but magically playing together, moving artfully through crescendo and decrescendo, coalescing in a great tolling of bells (a tribute to Paris and to France?)—perhaps a gritty farewell as Ravel headed off to war.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.