Three Graces of chamber music, the Eroica Piano Trio, are back on tour and in top form in every respect, but there’s a difference – baby pictures are all the rage – cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio is the third member of the ensemble to embraced motherhood!

Their October 16 concert for the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s Masters Series drew a bigger audience than usual to the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater. The program sandwiched a rarity between two well-known works. The only negative was an extraordinarily intrusive obbligato noise from the air-conditioning system.

The “Gypsy” Trio in G, H.15/25, by Franz Joseph Haydn is a musical mascot if not a full-fledged warhorse in the Triangle. Its last movement, “Rondo all’ongarese,” is a frequent encore. This trio, with its perfect blend of elegant classical style wedded to elements of folk music, is often chosen to represent the composer’s style. This is too bad because the composer virtually invented the piano trio and left some 27 late trios that deserve more frequent performance. Playing a luscious-toned Fazioli piano, Erika Nickrenz etched the opening with crystalline purity. This precision was carried on as the string players were featured in turn, each providing focused tone and superb intonation. The concluding Hungarian movement was a real “foot-stomper,” with insistent rhythms. Violinist Adela Penã executed some fine double stops to overlay the folksiness, a detail I had overlooked in other performances of this work; only later did we learn that the Trio was given in a version by Pablo Casals with additional enhancements by the Eroica artists.

The ensemble then added a bonus work to the program, performing the Aria (Cantilena) from Villa-Lobos’ Bachiana brasileira No. 5 in a lovely arrangement by Raimundo Penaforte that retains the wonderful lines for solo cello that, with the soprano’s contributions, make the original such a winning composition.

Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966), born in Barcelona, Spain, was a scholarship cello student of Casals and a composition student of Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel. In addition to being one of the foremost cellists of his era, he was a prolific composer and transcriber of works for cello. Having reviewed a rare performance of his Cello Sonata last season, my interest was heightened for his Piano Trio in C Major (1926). It did not disappoint. In three movements, the dense, loud, and very Spanish-flavored opening melody returns repeatedly between contrasting lyrical interludes. A gorgeous cello solo is a highlight of the first movement, as are quicksilver mood changes. Glassy string harmonics and searing high violin notes color the second movement, in which a dirge is transformed into a march-like theme. The finale opens with a noble Spanish tune that is recast between contrasting episodes. The coda is a mad dash, played as loudly as possible – marked by Cassadó to be played sextuple forte! The Eroica Trio made the strongest possible case for the recently rediscovered work, playing with passionate intensity and lockstep intonation and phrasing. Nickrenz’s piano trills were gorgeous. At times, Sant’Ambrogio’s intensity reminded me of the famous Jasper Johns’ painting of Madame Suggia, Casals’ prominent English student and sometime mistress – this was elegantly-contained passion.

Grief and hardships seem to have found their release in the finest works of Bedrich Smetana (1824-84). His Trio in g minor, Op. 15, was inspired by the death of his favorite and musically-gifted daughter, Bedriska, at age 5, in September 1855. This was his first characteristic major work. According to Vít Roubícek, in notes for a Kubelik Trio recording of this work, contemporary critics dismissed it as an “extravagant yet incomprehensible outburst of modernism.” More significantly, Franz Liszt alone praised it, and his thorough analysis led Smetana to revise somewhat the first and last movements in 1857. The aching grief of the composer dominates all three movements. This raw heartache is emphasized in the opening motif, which ends with the sound of the lowest violin string. The second movement is a meditation on sorrow. The most significant Liszt-influenced revision occurs in the last movement. Smetana quotes extensively a theme from his early piano sonata of 1846. Roubícek reports that the composer “once disclosed it was a melody his deceased daughter liked to sing.” There is no confirmation of this in Brian Large’s major biography, Smetana, but it is a heartwarming story. The Eroica Trio bought white-hot intensity to their performance that carried the listener with them. Balances among the piano and the strings were perfect.

To send the audience away on a less intense note, the Eroica Trio offered a lovely arrangement of the Berceuse from Jocelyn, by Benjamin Godard, a tune recalled by some in attendance from their childhoods.

All praise for the luxurious sound of the magnificent Fazioli model 278 9’2″ concert grand piano, furnished by Ruggero Piano! The series has never had a better sounding piano. Several CVNC reviewers have raved about the Fazioli sound on recordings. It was a privilege finally to hear one locally.

Music lovers who arrived early were treated to an unusually successful performance of Edward Elgar’s lovely String Serenade in e minor, Op.20. The RCMG features student chamber ensembles from area schools, colleges, universities, and private programs. Fine ensemble and tone belied the fact that the members of the Mallarmé Youth Chamber Orchestra had been together only since August. Director Yoram Youngerman has done wonders in molding the sixteen advanced string players, ages 10-18. The significant repeated theme played by the violas was especially well done.