The thrice-eponymous trio barnstormed through Boston on Sunday afternoon, stopping with a pair of masterworks at the Gardner. Nicola Benedetti (violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), and Alexei Grynyuk (piano) treated us to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor and Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major.
It’s rare to hear these two substantial works programed together. In remarks given before the concert, Benedetti described them as “second half pieces” because of their weight and length. However, the group feels only these two works can adequately balance each other. Both possess strong elegiac components. Schubert gave the public premiere of his trio at the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death, and Tchaikovsky dedicated his to the memory of his mentor, Nikolai Rubinstein. While Schubert’s trio celebrates Beethoven’s life and work, Elschenbroich described Tchaikovsky’s as an emotional journey through grief and loss. He likened the variations that make up the second movement of the trio to stories shared at a eulogy which end with the speaker breaking down in tears. In concluding, Tchaikovsky invites the audience to sit with him and experience his grief. The programmatic conceit led to a particularly vivid interpretation of the great variation set.
We experienced these powerful emotions through the ensemble’s immaculate performance. The three members played as one, maintaining close communication while at times letting themselves get lost in the sound. The group shaped the music around its texture, changing affect on a dime as required around militaristic rhythms or lugubrious melodies. With a fresh Romantic mien, they shaped with sublime rubato, as one player would fall behind at times or speeding up slightly to emphasize pathos, resulting in a haunting, ghostly closing theme from the first movement of Schubert’s trio and transforming Tchaikovsky’s lament into a soul-stirring memento.
Benedetti used her masterful control of vibrato to direct her lines. In Tchaikovsky’s trio, she deployed stunning moments of sans-vibrato to highlight key notes in a phrase, subsequently energizing the line by slowly destabilizing the note with vibrato. Her sensitivity to tone and color gave a humanizing touch to melodies in both pieces. She used expert bow-control to articulate melodies in Schubert’s trio, particularly in the pleating secondary melody in the fourth movement. Her body language communicated as much to the audience as her violin. She seemed to levitate above her seat, expressing joy and sadness through ecstatic gestures and mournful bows, invoking Clara Schumann’s quip that Liszt is “…an artist whom one must hear and see…”
Elschenbroich produced a deep warm support for Benedetti and Grynyuk. Wonderful pizzicatos rang through the hall as richly as bowed notes which resonated in the otherwise dry chamber long after his bow left the string of his Matteo Goffriller “Ex-Leonard-Rose-Ex-Alfredo-Piatti” (Venice, 1693). His melodies sang with the inflection of a dramatic baritone, and his tone channeled an intense, fricative texture that articulated notes like consonants in speech. Using these tools, his impassioned solos in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s trio electrified, as he looked away from the music and around the room.
Grynyuk contributed as much to the melodic contour of these pieces as the strings while maintaining a sensitive partnership. In the Schubert, he provided an enveloping cloud of arpeggios while keeping his articulation clean with careful flutter pedaling. He guided Tchaikovsky through its numerous variations with evocative imagination while building the set to its measured climax in the coda. The haunting final chords from the piano persisted as he played with a steady decrescendo that tested the limits of audibility.
Reveling in the divine length, the performers ended the concert as energized as they began. After the chilling conclusion of the Tchaikovsky trio, they froze for at least ten seconds without a sound in the hall. Even after they moved, releasing some of the palpable tension, a long silence ensued before several rounds of applause awakened the cube.