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A chamber music doubleheader is fraught with the delightful dilemma of which program to choose. Violinist Maria Bachmann, cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach and pianist Jon Klibonoff – together known as Trio Solisti – did not make it easy since each of their completely different programs brought a unique and fresh look to the piano trio repertoire. The Chamber Arts Society of Durham, in association with Duke Performances presented a pair of concerts by this celebrated trio at the Nelson Music Room, a hallowed venue that charms and delights all whether experiencing it for the first or hundredth time.
The second program of the weekend had the first half taken up with piano trios by two of the most venerated pianist/composers that ever lived: Sergei Rachmaninoff and Frederic Chopin. Of the two, Rachmaninoff composed a much more diverse genre of composition – including symphonies and major choral works – but it is interesting that these two piano masters confined their chamber music output to only cello sonatas (take that, violinists!) and piano trios. These two works were also quite youthful compositions, both written when each composer was only nineteen, yet each already displays much of the full maturity of each composer's respective and unmistakable personal stamp.
Rachmaninoff's "Trio elegiaque," a one movement work,was premiered in Moscow in 1892 with the composer at the piano. It has the designated marking of "Lento lugubre," and the opening theme gives every indication that it will continue as solely lugubrious and brooding. It is not surprising that an early composition by an already acclaimed piano virtuoso would have the piano part dominating, yet pianist Klibonoff was so self-assured and commanding that he was able to navigate the treacherous score without completely submerging his string colleagues. This is a highly emotive, Romantic and romantic work and is a perfect fit for the highly charged Trio Solisti. They conveyed great pathos as well as a sense of youthful urgency that must have been present at the beginning of the great Russian's career.
Even ardent chamber music enthusiasts are sometimes surprised to learn that Chopin composed a piano trio. This is a major work composed in a strict four-movement form that quasi-contemporaries Beethoven and Schubert used in their trios. It is interesting to learn that Chopin almost replaced the violin part with viola since he used the first string of the violin so infrequently anyway. The opening movement is aggressive and tumultuous, so much so that at times the players seemed to cross the line to abrasive and vulgar. This thankfully dissipated as the work wound its way through a lively scherzo and a lovely adagio which displayed a beautiful duo between violin and cello. After hearing this, one truly laments Chopin's avoidance of string quartets or other string writing. Like the finales in several of Brahms' chamber works, Chopin closes the trio with a nationalistic romp, this time a mazurka-like figuration based on Polish folk themes.
What does Maurice Ravel, the 60s rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and literally hundreds of other composer/arrangers have in common? They have all taken a shot at making an arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, originally a set of solo piano pieces composed as a memorial to his artist friend Victor Hartmann. Without conducting further research, this is the first arrangement for piano trio, although it was originally conceived by Jon Klibonoff for piano trio and clarinet and performed that way for some time. It was then adapted by the trio itself for this configuration. It is quite difficult to change anything that is so deeply entrenched in our ear and experiencing this was one of those situations. Whether it "works" (whatever that may mean) is a personal call. This arrangement was especially vexing since it straddled both worlds: much of the original solo piano work was intact, yet the strings, to some extent, added the color we had grown to expect from the great Ravel orchestration. This is a virtuosic adaptation and Trio Solisti was stunning in execution and effect. There are fifteen movements and it would be like omitting someone from a list of people you are thanking to single out specific highlights. When looking at this year's programs this jumped off the page and it did not disappoint as one of the best moments of the season.