Sunday afternoon gave me my first opportunity to experience the musical art of the Weilerstein Trio in a concert which impressed me as much as any I have reviewed during this concert season. This family trio, made up of Donald Weilserstein, violin; Alisa Weilerstein, cello; and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, piano, presented a program of works by Schumann, Dvořák and Janáček that represented both the greatness of these composers and these players’ many musical strengths. The program marked the final offering of this season’s Masters Series, presented by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.

Donald Weilerstein, renowned as the first violin of the famous Cleveland Quartet as well as a great soloist with an international reputation, plays his violin with great technical skill and expressiveness. His wife, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, also possesses a formidable technique and is internationally known and has been a collaborator with many equally well-known musicians throughout the world. Both these supremely skilled artists are on the faculty of New England Conservatory. Their daughter Alisa is a cellist whose virtuosic skill has earned her a world-wide reputation at age 26 and is arguably the star of this family trio.

The Weilersteins’ opening piece, Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 63 (1847), propelled listeners into the composer’s darkly-romantic world filled with moments of great beauty and strong passion. The piano is obviously the main musical force in this work; the strings either double much of its music or play passages in opposition to its major motives. The first movement is highlighted by a lovely duet by the violin and the cello. Their quiet, beautiful conclusion to this movement was especially effectively played. The second movement begins with another tender, highly romantic violin-cello duet which shows the players at their lyrical best; a highly passionate section which follows gives way to another delicate, extremely tender string duet, this time with the piano deeply involved in the musical texture. Virtuoso playing by all three musicians characterized the third movement, with all three instruments in spirited dialogue with each other. The final movement, with its shift to the major key and its melodies filled with gaiety and charm, inspired the trio’s most brilliant playing in the work as they brought it to a grand conclusion with the lengthy coda.

The most impressive and certainly the most demanding work on this program was Leos Janáček’s Quartet No. 1, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” transcribed for piano trio by Stephen Coxe. Janáček’s quartet may have been a revision by the composer of an earlier piano trio which some scholars believe he wrote in response to Leo Tolstoy’s novel of the same name. Moreover, in his quartet and in Coxe’s transcription of it from quartet to piano trio, there is in the third movement a quotation of a famous musical line from Beethoven’s famous “Kreutzer Sonata.” Thus the piano trio on Sunday’s program has distinguished literary and musical antecedents.

This four-movement work is full of dramatic tensions, exceedingly difficult music and technical demands which challenge the abilities of any three musicians, but the Weilerstein Trio showed themselves equal to its many demands. The first movement, with its dark, pessimistic melodic content and tension, jagged, stabbing motives, and thick texture, immediately foreshadows the character of the entire work. In no movement does it offer melodies which have pleasing contours and pleasant-sounding intervals; in all movements the music is filled with anguish, anger and fear, very likely a response to the constant fright and pain which Tolstoy’s main female character suffers.

The style and quality of this music is not gratifying either to the performer or the listener in any conventional way, but it does effectively dramatize the dark elements which Janáček found fascinating in Tolstoy’s novel. The members of the Trio responded to Janáček’s music with every technical ability in their repertoire of skills that would convey their understanding of Janáček’s intentions. Thus in the second movement the string players effectively used many times the short, almost painful jabbing motives that so well suggested pain and tension. Their playing of the Beethoven “Kreutzer” motives in the third movement suggested only continued despair, and their unison statements of several motives, in marked contrast to the melodic material in the piano, revealed some of the composer’s most powerful writing and the Trio’s most profound realizations of it.  The Trio’s performance of the three quite unrelated, difficult melodies in the fourth movement was also one of the greatest indications in this performance of the awe-inspiring musical skill of these three excellent players.

The Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90 (“Dumky”), the final piece on the program, was as different from Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata as day is from night. The lovely, very engaging melodies of Dvořák’s trio removed us from the dark world of Janáček to the sunlit world of the Czech countryside, with its happy faces, dances and folk melodies. Each movement Dvořák offered us intensified our delight, and the instruments of the Weilerstein Trio — and the playing — seemed to grow brighter and more golden in tone as these great musicians progressed through the work. The encore, an exciting waltz by the Argentinian dance-music king Piazzolla, showed off the virtuosity of all the Weilersteins and brought the audience to their feet in a second standing ovation.