This concert marked the welcome returned of the Manhattan Piano Trio to Music for a Great Space. The trio has changed violinists since CVNC reviewed the ensemble’s February 5, 2008, series debut in the more intimate space of Temple Emanuel. This concert was held in the series’ home base, Christ Methodist Church, a much larger space that can be problematic for chamber music ensembles with a piano. The two Trio founding members are pianist Milana Strezeva, a native of Kishinev, Moldova, and cellist Dmitry Kouzov, from St. Petersburg, Russia. Violinist Wayne Lee is from San Francisco. All three players completed graduate degrees at the Juilliard School. The trio’s enterprising program sandwiched two lovely short works for one string instrument and keyboard between two rarely-heard piano trio transcriptions of major works.

Before the invention of recordings or radio, the only way music lovers could hear and learn new works, aside from live performances, was to buy scores transcribing larger works for smaller forces. Composers and their publishers depended upon this middle class market to make a living as the old system of patronage by noblemen ebbed. The Sextet in B-flat, Op. 18, by Johannes Brahms (1833-97), composed for two violins, two violas, and two cellos, is one of the composer’s sunniest scores. The pastoral, relaxed work abounds in gorgeous melodies and some lively rhythms. The Manhattan Trio played a skilled transcription made by Theodor Kirchner (1823-1893), a member of the circle around Felix Mendelssohn and Clara and Robert Schumann and thus also Brahms. String sextet performances can sometimes be too plush. Between the reduced strings and keyboard, musical lines were given a unique clarity. The distribution of parts was more complex than just having the piano “voice” the violas! The piano lid was fully raised but Strezeva carefully balanced with the strings and conjured a subtle palette of tone. Both violinist Lee and cellist Kouzov played with superb intonation and generous, warm tone.

The two short duo works listed in the program were performed in reverse order. The Pezzo Capriccioso, Op. 62, by Tchaikovsky (1840-93), was a wonderful showcase for cellist Kouzov. He produced a full, rich sound, and it was amazing to watch as he fingered so precisely some terrific fast passages. The piece’s dynamic range was unusually wide. The composer did not neglect the keyboard part, and Strezeva kept up with every twist and turn. Tchaikovsky’s Valse Scherzo, Op. 23, resembled a Paganini showpiece in focusing more on the violinist. Lee projected the string part effortlessly, from a hushed whisper to a ringing forte or showy multiple stops. His excellent intonation was combined with a fine warm tone.

Transcriptions throw their original works in a new light and none more so than downsizing a whole symphony to a piano trio! Beethoven’s life overlaps the decline of patronage by the nobility and the rise of music publishing for the new middle class. The composer himself made the piano trio transcription of his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36. It is quite a game guessing what orchestra part is being featured in the keyboard. One moment Strezeva voiced horns, another the timpani, and still another time, the woodwinds’ theme. I spent most of the first movement trying to match memories of the original orchestration. The remaining three were heard more as a trio with thoughts of how it matched in spirit with Beethoven’s “Archduke” Piano Trio, Op. 97. The Manhattan Trio made the best possible case for this rarity.

The Manhattan Trio rewarded their enthusiastic audience with a sizable encore, the Ziemlich langsam third movement from the Piano Trio No. 3 in G Minor, Op. 110, by Robert Schumann. The violin and cello sang an intertwining duet within the piano’s waltzing rhythm. A chromatic, dark interlude cast a disturbing undercurrent.