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Chamber Music Without Addling Traffic

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The Concord Chamber Music Society welcomed the three world-class musicians of the Zukerman Trio to Concord on Sunday afternoon in an imaginative and impeccably performed concert. A sold-out audience filled raked arena seats of the Concord Academy of the Performing Arts and enjoyed the intimacy, egalitarianism, and collegiality of the genre in the estimable hands of violinist Pinchas Zukerman, cellist Amanda Forsyth and pianist Angela Cheng.

Beethoven’s Variations in G on Wenzel Müller’s Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu (“I am the tailor Kakadu”), Op. 121a, is largely characterized by earthy good humor but no less skillfully composed for that. Taken from a musical play, Müller’s aria is clearly inspired by Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen that Mozart gave Papageno to sing in Die Zauberflöte, so closely does it resemble Mozart’s aria of several years earlier. The significant exception to the work’s high spirits is the fairly lengthy slower, minor-mode introduction which, as Steven Ledbetter speculated in the program notes, could very possibly have been a later addition “to spruce up the work before offering it to a publisher.” The players made it doleful to heighten its contrast to the jaunty main theme when it arrived at length. Beethoven designed these delightful variations both to show the theme’s possible permutations as well as to display the performers’ musicianship. The jocular violin triplets in the second variation, the piano’s broken octaves, and strings’ “chirps” in the sixth, the string duet of the seventh wherein the cello and violin swap figures, and the deeply expressive ninth in the minor mode, with strings largely playing in alternation with the piano, particularly pleased this reviewer. The artists rendered this charming aperitif with smiles.

From the variety of moods that permeate his Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 32, it’s clear that Anton Arensky (1861-1906), a Russian Romantic who deserves to be better known, influenced his student, Sergei Rachmaninoff. The first movement’s main theme had yearning, Slavic melancholy, playfulness, and sternness in the hands of all three musicians, successively. The development began with a series of interesting modulations that in a lesser composer’s hands might have sounded far-fetched. Again, the ensemble’s affection for the music was palpable, particularly at the ethereal and haunting end of the first movement. The effervescent Scherzo delighted: it is largely a display piece for the piano with delicious, delicate commentary from the strings. In the Elegia’s first theme, Forsyth’s cello sang poignantly, soon joined by Zukerman. For its sunny second theme, the strings set up a lush, undulating accompaniment while Cheng rendered a lovely cantabile melody. The rondo Finale opened forcefully but again offered an attractive range of moods and textures in this masterful performance. For an extended episode, the composer brought back the beautiful second theme of the Elegia, followed by the chiaroscuro first theme of the entire work. With a final reprise of the Rondo’s central theme the artists brought the trio to a stirring conclusion.

Zukerman Trio (Cheryl Mazak photo)

Brahms’s piano trios form a cornerstone of the genre, and his second (C major, Op. 87) is a perennial favorite, notwithstanding its unusual gestation: Brahms wrote the first movement in early 1880 but subsequently let the work lie fallow for over two years, writing the following three movements in the summer of 1882. In his engaging and informative preliminary lecture and essay Ledbetter remarked on the “symphonic” quality of the writing, characterizing it as akin to a contest between the strings and the piano that frequently has the violin and cello playing in octaves to compete with the orchestral writing of the demanding piano part. Interestingly, though, to my ears Cheng’s playing, though far from subdued, sounded restrained enough to make an overall impression similar to that of the prior two works: largely an equal three-way conversation in which each musician had moments in the spotlight. The threesome gave continuous attention to balance and graceful trade-offs of the solos in an entirely convincing interpretation very much their own. Though the first movement had more than a whiff of Brahms’s piano concertos, Zukerman and Forsyth didn’t have to hold their own against the keyboard. The second movement’s variations, in A minor, decidedly contrasted with those of the earlier Beethoven. The rhapsodic and beautiful third variation, for instance, played piano arpeggios against fragmented melodies alternating between cello and violin. The Scherzo was, as often with Brahms, not jocular but quivering with nervous energy and unrest, a precursor to the D Minor Violin Sonata’s scherzo. The delicate filigree figures from the three artists riveted throughout. The Finale commenced rather secretively (Brahms marks it mezza voce) but quickly gave way to vigorous statements. An extensive range of colors and moods enhanced the changing textures and the varied articulations. Though Brahms posed plentiful technical challenges to the three players, the Zukerman Trio made its subtler brand of virtuosity its hallmark: a consummate mastery of intention and execution, to be sure, but also collaboration at the highest level, each member listening and responding sensitively to the others. Residents of Concord and the nearby exurbs owe profound gratitude to Concord Chamber Music Society for booking international-caliber performances without subjecting them to the vicissitudes of Boston traffic.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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