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The Asheville Chamber Music Series began its 69th season with a concert by the ATOS Piano Trio. The concert was streamed from Berlin, as due to Covid-19 the group was unable to travel to the United States.
The other concerts this season are planned to be presented live. Founded in 1952 by Joe Wandewart, a refugee from Nazi Germany, the distinguished Asheville chamber series has hosted some of the leading ensembles in the world. These have included the Amadeus, Budapest, and Emerson string quartets, among many others.
The ATOS Piano Trio, a multi-prizewinning group which tours internationally and has been together for 18 years, can be considered in that echelon of the finest ensembles on the stage. In their program of Mozart, Chaminade, and Dvorák, they played with the greatest technical clarity, grand emotion, and perfection of ensemble work.
The first work was by Mozart, his Piano Trio in B-flat, K. 502. This is a piece of Mozart's maturity, a full-fledged masterpiece of chamber writing. The first movement Allegro began immediately with vivacious energy. The interweaving of lines – the essence of chamber playing – was in perfect balance. What contributed to the individuality of the interpretation was a generous amount of rubato, more than might be usual in Mozart, but used to create an expressive character. This piece has a showy piano part, and pianist Thomas Hoppe brought glitter and flawless articulation to the passage work. At the start of the development came a lovely drawn-out violin melody, the first of many from violinist Annette von Hehn. There were darker, more dramatic colorations in this section; it was rich, full-bodied Mozart playing.
The Larghetto is an example of Mozart as a great melodist. At the start the piano takes the main melody again. This was followed by long lines in the violin, and equally in the cello where Stefan Heynemeyer made his own contribution to the perfectly-balanced ensemble. Such lush, expressive sound was everywhere in this movement, which had the effect of one long, beautiful song. This was especially so at the last return of the theme, richly elaborated with a sound which might have been called romantic. The delicate piano trills at the end were especially fine.
The concluding Allegretto brought the piece back to the light, upbeat character of the first movement. The ensemble again showed sensitivity to changing colors and played the first return with great vigor. There was drama in the two passages of brief contrapuntal interplay; throughout, the intimate contact and give-and-take among the players were palpable.
The following work was by Cécile Chaminade, her Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 34. Chaminade may be best-known today for her flute music. In her time she was publicly successful, critically well-received, and an awarded composer of numerous and varied works, with her piano music being especially popular. This piano trio has her creating on a large, epic scale. She is a composer people should be playing and hearing.
The Allegro moderato has a heroic beginning, with difficult chordal piano writing. The entire large-scale movement is big in character. It has a more quietly stepping second theme and soaring lyricism in the closing. Here the ATOS group showed itself expressing the most passionate character, with big, perhaps even outsized emotion. The pearl-like passagework in the piano attracted special notice. However, all three performers created grand expression and virtuosic power.
The second movement Lento was meditative, starting with gentle rhythmic pulses. In this movement, as elsewhere, the violin and cello often play as a pair in contrast to the piano. The musicians again reached big, arching lyricism. Much of the music, loud or soft, is intense in character. There is varied, sometimes disparate material, which was beautifully linked by the ensemble, but could justify describing parts of the piece as episodic rather than fully integrated.
The concluding Allegro energico returned to an epic mood. The impact of the first movement resumed here; the beautiful, lyrical violin and cello playing in the expressive themes called for special mention. The piece ended with a driving acceleration through the coda. It is worth repeating that Chaminade's music deserves to be played and heard. This piece might well become part of the piano trio repertory.
After a five-minute intermission, there was an enjoyable question and answer session with the trio, led by pianist Hoppe and his cell phone. This was conducted from Göttingen, 200 miles away from Berlin in western Germany. It is a remarkable feature of our musical life today that we can directly experience concerts from hundreds, even thousands of miles away; Asheville is over 4,500 miles from Berlin.
The one drawback to this part of the experience – even remarkable technology can have its flaws – was the echoing sound, which was not of high quality. But having such a conversation was still a privilege.
After this short discussion period, the program concluded with Dvorák's Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65. This piece is unusually turbulent for Dvorák, very probably occasioned by a confluence of life circumstances.
The opening Allegro ma non troppo came back to the epic quality listeners experienced in the Chaminade. Though the composers share romantic-era commonalities, they are quite distinct from each other. In the performance of this movement, passionate expression and virtuoso range again stood out. An extremely lush cello solo in the second theme did as well. Even in this dark music, Dvorák could not resist a hint of the pastoral as well. The transition to the development had an especially beautiful pp, something one experienced repeatedly from the group. This was heard in the return as well, along with lush chromaticism and perfectly matched unisons between the violin and cello.
The Allegretto grazioso – Meno mosso is an absolutely lovely movement, a quintessential example of Dvorák in pastoral dance. There was a light touch in the playing, even as it was high-spirited too, and a mysterious sliding chromatic scale. The trio (meno mosso) brought forth full lyricism, with a soaring phrase in the middle and a gorgeous transition back to the A.
The third movement Poco adagio was very sustained, here with the cello starting the melody, and the one movement in the trio which might be said to be at peace. More high points were a beautiful stratospheric violin passage, an equally beautiful fade to a cadence, and a wonderful, introverted ending.
The Finale Allegro con brio brought back a darker character again. It is rhythmic, sometimes dance-like. Whether in sharply-defined rhythms or seemingly endless cantabile phrases, everything was shaped by the ATOS with a total sense of line. The arrival, finally, of a celebratory major mode led twice to thickening harmonies and a dramatic pause. A beautiful fade to pianissimo brought in the racing, triumphant ending.
One could not exceed the intensity of the program, so the group instead scaled back, leaving the beauty. For an encore they played an arrangement of "Oblivion" by Astor Piazzolla. A lovelier ending than this tender, elegaic music could not be imagined. It is so very much the expressiveness of Piazzolla, with wonderful long lines. The trio's instruments moved with perfect smoothness among each other, and the piano brought out the countermelodies beautifully – a perfect ending.
One could perhaps suggest that the program concept was somewhat less than optimum. Despite the strength of the two ending pieces and their differences, putting them together resulted in a great deal of thick, high-intensity Romantic-style music. Even besides the possibility of a different style for the ending piece, one could imagine instead placing Mozart between Chaminade and Dvorák.
That said, the word stellar, as used earlier, is the best description for this evening of world-class musicmaking.