December 13, 2013
The art of instrumental conversation
For the Herald
The craft of marvellous playing is often stifled in piano-dominated trios
In just three days, I heard two concerts based on the combination of a piano with two strings, violin and cello. This texture has attracted many great composers because, if the challenge is won, the results can be marvellous. But the author and the players have to solve a difficult equation: the piano is a clavier instrument where the sound is produced striking the keys, while for the violin and cello it comes from friction between the bow and the strings.
Not only the result is very different but there’s also a matter of volume: the piano can be louder than the two string instruments together. So the trick is proper balance. And this isn’t often made any easier by the composers who, in many trios, wrote hefty piano parts because some were pianists who — instinctively and perhaps unavoidably — privilege their instrument.
There were and are very good interpreters of this art form, in two categories: those that dedicate most of their time to it, such as the Beaux Arts or the Trio di Trieste, and those that alternate between it and independent careers. Of the latter type are those that I will comment on.
Pinchas Zukerman is a famous violinist with a very long career, in a way parallel to that of his great colleague Itzhak Perlman. Zukerman has visited us often, at first as a soloist, but as the years went by he became more and more interested in chamber ensembles. He styled them as Zukerman and Friends and they played especially quintets.
In recent seasons, I felt that Zukerman was functioning as a self-effacing leader, blending easily with the others. The life of the brilliant virtuoso was gradually giving way to that of a convinced smooth chamber player. But in string groups that’s alright: in a piano trio, however, if the violinist and the cellist don’t assert themselves, the piano takes the lead. In fact, long-established trios have accepted this as a fact of life: if we think of the Beaux Arts our memory goes primarily to pianist Menahem Pressler.
However, as I listen to records by Rubinstein, Heifetz and Feuermann, e.g., I find a common purpose but of equal strength. And I think that’s the right way.
This year Zukerman and Friends disappeared; they came as a trio for the first time at the Colón, and called themselves Zukerman Chamber Players; however, in what is surely a better name, they will play at AMIJAI as Zukerman Trio. The Colón date was for Nuova Harmonia.
The cellist, known from earlier visits, was Amanda Forsyth, Zukerman’s wife. And the Canadian pianist was Angela Cheng. The programme was very traditional: Mendelssohn’s wonderful First Trio was sandwiched between a lightish Beethoven, the rarely heard Allegretto WoO39 (1812), and that towering masterwork form the same creator, the Archduke Trio No. 6. In case you’re wondering, WoO means Werke ohne Opus (“works without opus number”). The charming encore was Kreisler’s Marche miniature viennoise.
I drew several conclusions. First, that they ideally accomplish a basic virtue of good chamber playing: their phrasing shows complete accord between themselves and the score; in other words, the best orthodoxy.
Secondly, that the pianist dominates again; true, Cheng is a splendid artist with beautiful touch and she doesn’t exceed what is marked by the composer.
Thirdly, that the cellist is admirable, with perfect tuning and a round tone, but in volume she isn’t quite a match for the pianist. And fourthly, that Zukerman, always musical, attentive and tasteful, seems to have lost the dynamic presence he used to have and his tone was decidedly too small. So I wasn’t completely happy with the final result, but there’s no gainsaying the knowledge and sensitivity they communicated.
The Trío Alberto Williams is very young; it was born two years ago. The string players have strong links with La Plata: violinist Nicolás Favero and cellist Siro Bellisomi; and the pianist is the masterly Antonio Formaro, who is equally interested in a chamber and a solo career.
Their recital at the Gran Rex for the Midday Concerts began with sensitive words by Luis Alberto Erize about his recently deceased mother Jeannette Arata de Erize, and the immense applause was suggestive of the appreciation the audience has for the fantastic work of Jeannette through the decades. Formaro also mentioned her fundamental help to young artists.
They played an enormous and very difficult score, Tchaikovsky’s only Trio, To the memory of a great artist (Nikolai Rubinstein). It starts with a 20-minute Pezzo elegiaco and ends with a half-hour Theme and variations (although the hand programme considered the final variation and coda as a separate movement, I don’t agree).
It lasted 50 minutes, due to a long internal cut in the final variation (and they were right, it is too long and prolix).
Again the pianist dominated, though not because Formaro unduly took the lead, but because Tchaikovsky’s writing is very dense and virtuosic, with big chords fortissimo in many places.
Indeed, his playing was excellent. Favero has a sweet sound with perfect tuning, but not the volume for certain passages, and Bellisomi is a fine cellist who did very expressive things, but again (more Tchaikovsky’s fault than his) he couldn’t compete with certain piano interventions. Even so, it was a very good interpretation from all concerned of a beautiful (though overwrought) score. They are ready for Bolzano’s festival.