Down Easterners are hungry for good chamber music, and they know where it can be consistently found! Beginning its sixth season, the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival aptly called its August 26 concert “Opening Night Extravaganza.” Despite the fact that the A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall is almost totally surrounded by construction barriers for an addition to the ECU School of Music, an overflow audience was almost literally shoehorned into the hall, filling the back and both sides of the stage while a double row of extra chairs was added just below the front of the stage. Artistic Director Ara Gregorian’s program encompassed two of the finest piano trios of the late Classical and 20th-century periods. The ensemble consisted of pianist Adam Neiman, violinist Gregorian, and cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach.

Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat, Op. 97 (“Archduke”), was composed in March 1811 at a time when his patrons, the aristocrats of Vienna, were losing their wealth and power. The rise of the middle class as “consumers” of music had begun. Performances could no longer depend on aristocratic amateurs or court musicians. According to Melvin Berger, in the Guide to Chamber Music, this trio “was in the first wave of music composed expressly for professional players, to be presented in a public hall for a middle-class audience.” The work’s nickname comes from its dedication to Archduke Rudolf, a longtime student and patron of the composer and the younger brother of the Emperor Leopold II of Austria. In addition to reflecting social transition, the “Archduke” Trio is part of the transition between the composer’s “middle” and “late” periods.

Much of the work is broad and spacious, and Beethoven creates an almost orchestral sonority by exploiting the cello’s lower register and – frequently – giving it the melody. The rich resonant baritone of Gerlach’s cello was fully satisfying as she spun out the many singing melodies. Gregorian’s sweet-toned violin blended beautifully in duets with the cello – or made a fine contrast, with precisely placed high notes. Pianist Neiman sustained perfect balances with his string colleagues while revealing a wide palette of timbre and some gorgeous trills. Overall, the pacing and phrasing were excellent, with well sprung rhythms and great care given to the ratcheting up and releasing of musical tension.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio in e minor, Op. 67, is one of the two greatest 20th-century works for that combination. (The other is Ravel’s.) The Shostakovich deals on several levels with some of the most wrenching horrors of the holocaust and, on a subtle level, with Stalin’s purges. The immediate inspiration for its composition was the unexpected death of Shostakovich’s closest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, who had served as a sounding board as the composer tried out new works. The opening is extraordinary and unforgettable. The cello begins alone, playing extreme high harmonics on muted strings. The violin enters with muted strings in its low register, followed by stark low chords from the piano. While a number of folk-like melodies are used, the score also abounds with harsh, raw, or sardonic passages. The second movement is brazen and vehement, by turns swirling and lurching. The Largo – on an immediate level, a desolate dirge or threnody on Sollertinsky’s death – is a chaconne consisting of a set of variations on the eight desolate chords played by the pianist to open the movement. The wild last movement, dominated by Yiddish-like dance tunes, was suggested to the composer by early reports of Nazi atrocities such as making their victims dance upon their graves. The musicians delivered a deeply-felt performance that gave equal value to solid technique and charged emotions. Gerlach’s bowing of the ghostly opening solo was seamless, with no vibrato. Gregorian’s intonation was on the same par as he attacked the exposed high notes. All the players followed the sudden twists and turns in tight lockstep. The dynamics were carefully nuanced. Neiman’s superb pianism was breathtaking. After the quiet ending, there was a prolonged silence; as usual following great performances of this trio, it seemed a sacrilege to break the silence. Prolonged standing applause was rewarded with the second movement from Brahms’ Trio in c minor as an encore.