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Rock music has had a few three-member bands that often become known as "power trios." What they lack in numbers, they more than make up in sound, producing surging chords from one guitar, one bass and drums. From the classic rock era, ZZ Top comes to mind, for example. The Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival closed out its 2010-11 season with its own version of a power trio — minus long beards and sunglasses — and it was pretty powerful indeed.
Festival Artistic Director Ara Gregorian, sitting in the violinist's chair, chose to end the season with three piano trios, and joining him were two musicians who have played in earlier Four Seasons programs — pianist Thomas Sauer and cellist Colin Carr, who themselves have performed together in this country and in Europe. The program at the A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall moved easily from 18th century Classicism to 19th century Romanticism to early 20th century not-quite modernism. Each piece received an excellent reading from the trio.
The sound of a trio in performance, whether a string trio or a trio consisting of a non-stringed instrument with violin and cello, need not come across as a bit lightweight, depending on the imagination and skill of the composer, and two of these trios — the Brahms Piano Trio in C, Op. 87, and the Ravel Piano Trio in A minor — contain considerable heft and substance, even muscularity, in part because of the strong role given the piano. And the Haydn Piano Trio in G minor, H.15/19, is a delightful piece, filled with lightness and rhythm and enough sheer music to keep the listener engaged throughout.
Haydn's trio opened the program, and the three players offered such a refined, elegant and still lively performance. The opening andante-presto movement features nice solo lines and intricate duo and trio passages, with some especially fine interplay between piano and violin. The middle adagio, ma non troppo movement is not necessarily a somber piece, but it received a carefully modulated reading by the three players. One wishes the movement were a bit longer. The final presto movement returned to the liveliness of the first movement.
Haydn wrote more than 40 piano trios; Brahms wrote three. And the second of these, Op. 87, proved to be the main course of the evening, with some sections sounding as if they were sketches for a full-blown piano concerto. Brahms incorporated a variety of playing techniques to make the trio interesting: several long passages where instruments played together in unison and other segments that were played in the same pitch but an octave apart; some passages in which one stringed instrument is plucked while the other is bowed, followed by a repeat of the phrase in which the two instruments reverse the playing techniques; a buzzing insect line to open and close the third movement.
The trio is a large-scale piece for a small-scale ensemble and covers a lot of musical territory, from the urgency and drama of the opening allegro movement through the emotionally charged lines in the third scherzo movement to the energetic power (especially in ascending lines) of the final allegro giocoso, with its series of quick five-note figures traded back and forth between violin and cello, joined occasionally by the piano. The somber theme-and-variations in the second andante con moto movement gave the players the chance to team up with one another in the three pairings and as an ensemble, to quite good effect.
A constant throughout the trio was the nicely contrasting strength and delicacy that Sauer brought to the piano part. Gregorian and Carr gave the string parts wonderful expressiveness, but Sauer often was the difference between making the piece a true piano trio or a violin-cello duo with piano accompaniment.
Such was the case, too, with the most interesting composition on the program, Ravel's Piano Trio in A minor, completed in 1914 at the outset of World War I. And if the Brahms trio was the main course, this was a dessert of incredible proportions — not fluffy or sugar-coated, but such a variety of tasty bits and morsels offered throughout the four-movement composition.
Beginning with the solo piano opening in the modéré movement, echoed by unison strings, the trio required and received careful attention to both grand gestures and tiny details, with varying dynamics and tempi. An emotional solo violin line here, a cello counterpoint there, buoyed by frequent piano lines at the forefront and in subtle accompaniment — one had little idea of what to expect next, and it was all interesting. The music itself was quite accessible, displaying Ravel's gift for melody with a 20th century French accent.
The lively second pantoum movement and fourth and final movement bracketed one of the most unusual compositions ever heard from a Four Seasons stage. Called a passacaille, the movement opens with a somber solo piano line with the left hand in the lower register, echoed by the cello, then joined by the violin as the cello fades out. First reaction? A take on a Native American melody line. Next reaction? A distant variant on Debussy's "Sunken Cathedral." But the movement picked up intensity without losing its sense of singing, especially in Gregorian's violin. Another lengthy piano solo was followed by a violin-cello duet, softly played, that gave way to an emotional cello solo line by Carr. Perhaps the musical highlight of the entire program.
The fourth movement, by the way, sounded almost as if it came from a different universe, as it returned to the liveliness of the second movement in particular. This was perhaps the most modern-sounding part of the trio, but it kept the audience's attention to the very end, and it was nice to bring the 2010-11season to an end with less-well-known but exceedingly well-played chamber pieces.