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The Poinsett Piano Trio brought an unhackneyed program to music lovers gathered in Christ United Methodist Church for the opening program for the 24th season of Music for a Great Space. Many touring trios bring a pair of warhorses leavened with maybe a Haydn trio. The Poinsett musicians embellished this evening's warhorse, Brahms' Op. 8, with seldom-heard works by Beethoven and Fauré.
The trio is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, a statesman, physician, and botanist from South Carolina, best known for his discovery of the Mexican plant that bears his name (poinsettia). The ensemble consists of pianist David Gross, violinist Deirdre Hutton, and cellist Christopher Hutton. All are faculty members of Furman University. Both the pianist and the cellist provided brief verbal program notes from the stage.
It was fascinating to hear the opening work, the Trio in E-flat, Op.70, No. 2. by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Its companion, Trio in D, Op. 70, No. 1 ("Ghost"), with its eerie central slow movement, is heard frequently on programs not dominated by the more famous "Archduke" Trio, Op. 97. Unlike the three movement "Ghost" Trio, Op. 70, No. 2, is in four movements with, as Gross commented, no really slow movement. Each instrument in turn – cello, violin, and piano – enters in the slow introduction to the opening Allegro. Two lovely allegrettos are sandwiched between the first movement and the vivacious final allegro. The second movement is a set of major/minor variations while the third has the gentle rhythms of a Ländler.
The virtues of the Poinsett Trio held throughout their performance of three trios. The balance between the Steinway and the strings was ideal with Gross flawlessly gauging his dynamics. The piano lid was fully raised. Both Huttons played with excellent string intonation and tone. Tempos were unrushed. The Trio's performance was like overhearing a relaxed conversation between friends, the perfect approach for this not heaven-storming Beethoven work.
This state is not a hot bed of performances of the French Repertoire. Debussy and Ravel make it with an occasional Franck or Saint-Saëns. Connoisseurs relish the works of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), so the chance to hear the composer's only Trio, Op. 120, was a signal event. This piano trio is the composer's penultimate work. It and his final work, the String Quartet, are acknowledged masterworks that mix a lot of formal freedom and graceful melodies with a distinctive personal idiom. The opening movement follows the contours of the sonata form with elusive and subtle variations. There is a barcarolle quality conjured by the rippling keyboard figuration paired with a swaying cello melody. Fauré was a master of the French art song, and gorgeous melodies abound in the central Andantino movement. A highlight is a duet sung by violin and cello above a hushed keyboard. The truly lively Allegro vivo dazzles with its color, energy, and contrasts. The composer explores exotic modalities and toys with two juxtaposed tempos.
The Poinsett Trio played the Fauré magnificently, with great sensitivity to color and tone and for clarity of articulation. Opus 120 is under represented in CD catalogs; perhaps the Poinsett Trio should consider it for a future recording.
There is nothing more central to a touring piano trios' repertoire than Trio in B, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms (1833-97). There are two versions, the "true" original Op. 8, published in 1854, and a late, extensive revision of 1890, which is the one most often played. Beyond the long first movement, Brahms made extensive cuts and tweaks, shortening the original by about a third. The piece is full of superb melodies and the composer fully exploits the sonorities of all three instruments.
The cello is my favorite instrument, and Christopher Hutton brought out the rich, low register superbly, producing soaring melodies. Gross' playing of the keyboard part was breathtaking. Deidre Hutton matched her colleagues equally well. I look forward to further visits throughout the Old North State from these fine Furman University based musicians.