Vienna’s Jess Trio has become a familiar fixture in the Triangle. Every few years they come for a return engagement to show us what true ensemble playing really is.

The three Jess-Kropfitsch siblings – pianist Johannes, violinist Elizabeth and cellist Stefan – have been performing together since childhood, and it shows. In a performance on Monday, October 8, in the Sarah Graham Kenan Recital Hall at Peace College they demonstrated again why they get asked back for repeat appearances. The precision of attack, dynamic balance between the instruments and the kind of rapport that comes with long-time cooperation, combined with a freshness stemming from their obvious enjoyment in making music.

In true Viennese fashion, the program was conservative and home-grown. Haydn’s familiar Piano Trio in G was a case in point. From the gentle opening Theme and Variations to the fiery finale Rondo all’ongarese, they put themselves and the audience on an emotional roller-coaster. This is the first of Haydn’s piano trios in which the violin is an equal partner, and violinist Elizabeth Kropfitsch literally jumped out of her chair as she lit into the gypsy fiddling. We just wish that chamber trios would air some of Haydn’s many wonderful but less well-known piano trios.

There is often a good reason why some works suffer from benign neglect. Regarded now as a second-rank composer compared to his contemporaries Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert-all of whom he knew and worked with personally- Johann Nepomuk Hummel turned out to be the most successful in his own lifetime. But his music, representing the quintessence of the Classical style, quickly fell out of favor. His Piano Trio, Op.12 is melodious, charming and easily forgettable, and the Jess Trio milked it for all it was worth, but that was not much.

Playing familiar works has its problems. We expect good ensembles to give us new insights on such works, but in trying to find a new approach it is easy to go too far. The performance of the third work on the program, the Piano Trio in C, Op. 87, by Johannes Brahms, suffered from such excess. The first two movement were so chock full of broad rubato that the interpretation was actually jerky and distracted from the flow and shape of the phrasing. Although Brahms included extensive instructions for dynamics and tempo, the musicians exaggerated them out of all proportion. In the last two movements the interpretation was more straightforward, especially in the Scherzo with its lovely trio.

Then came the encores, and the Trio showed us that with good performers, a piano trio can do nearly anything. First came a Johann Strauss polka, transporting the audience to a Viennese ballroom. In response to the proverbial Carolina standing ovation, the trio made a quick trip from Vienna to Nashville with a medley of Elvis Presley tunes…and it worked!