Chamber Music Review

Music for a Great Space: Red-Blooded Virtuosity from the Manhattan Piano Trio

February 5, 2008 - Greensboro, NC:

Music for a Great Space is one Greensboro's most valuable resources for classical music, and it is still too little known among the locals. This is more apparent at the series' Christ United Methodist Church home base than at its occasional visits to Temple Emanuel. The more intimate Temple Emanuel's Sanctuary was well-filled for an imaginative program given by an exciting rising new ensemble, the Manhattan Piano Trio. Individually, the trio members are award-winning soloists in their own right. Violinist Dmitry Lukin and cellist Dmitry Kouzov are from St. Petersburg, Russia; they met the Moldovan-born American pianist Milana Strezeva literally on the "front steps" of the Juilliard School. The trio was formed in 2004 and has racked up an impressive resume of awards.

The scheduled Mozart Piano Trio in C, K.548, was jettisoned in favor of the Piano Trio in G, Hob. XV:25, by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the most often programmed of the composer's 66-plus piano trios. The precision of the individual members of the Manhattan Trio was immediately striking. No matter how high the violin note, Ludkin nailed it, and this quality held during even the fastest passages. Cellist Kouzov produced a warm, rich sound, conjured up with some of the cleanest bowing I have ever heard. Strezeva produced a gorgeous, mellow sound that was perfectly balanced despite having the piano's lid fully raised. Her articulation in the fastest passages was extraordinary, as was her palette of tone color and carefully gauged dynamics. The stylish playing of the famous concluding "Rondo all'Ongarese" was expected, but the risk-taking, red-blooded intensity was not — and was delightful.

It was an imaginative touch to end the first half of the concert with three short works to spotlight the virtuosity of each member of the ensemble. The Étude de concert No. 3 ("Un sospiro") ("A Sigh") by Franz Liszt (1811-86) was a splendid showcase for Strezeva's impressive technique.
The étude is a case study in crossing hands with wide graduations of touching the keys, and watching Strezeva's interweaving of hands and fingers was mesmerizing.

The Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, by Robert Schumann (1810-56), was composed for horn and piano but the composer also arranged versions for both violin and cello with piano. Cellist Kouzov said it is one of loveliest of the composer's works, and his heart-felt but unsentimental playing of the wonderfully lyrical piece was the finest I have heard live or on record.

The Polonaise in D Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 4. by Henryk Wieniawski (1835-80), was the perfect vehicle to display Ludkin's sharpshooter-like ability to pitch high notes precisely. His bowing, from the heaviest digging into the strings to the most gossamer touch, was astonishing.

With the popularity of such tuneful pieces as the "Nocturne" from Borodin's Second String Quartet, it is amazing that the Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 32, by Anton Arensky (1861-1906) is not programmed more often. Its four movements are loaded with wonderfully lyrical and playful melodies. It is hard to choose between the waltz-like second movement scherzo or the seamless melodies of the third movement "Elegia," where the composer pulls out all the stops. The full, luxurious sound of the Manhattan Piano Trio was ideal for Arensky's Op. 32.

A real rarity brought the concert to good-humored conclusion. The ensemble made a piano trio arrangement of the First Jazz Suite of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75). Strezeva said the trio wanted to use the suite to expose Shostakovich's sense of humor, which is overshadowed by the composer's brooding, serious chamber music and symphonies. Many of these works were composed to be hidden "in the drawer" while Stalin still lived. Charles Ives would have relished some of the unusual string methods the trio used as well as gags in the piano part. The Manhattan Piano Trio's arrangement ought to be taken up by others. It makes for an hilarious end to a concert.

In a sense there was a "fourth" player in every piece the trio played. It was the rare Brazilian rosewood Steinway model C, built in 1887 and beautifully restored by John Foy of Foy Piano Restorations, Inc. Called "Big Red," it was recently featured on Dick Gordon's NPR program "The Story." Its use for this concert served as a "test drive" before potential buyers in the audience.