For the third concert of the Twelfth Season of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, founder Ara Gregorian‘s theme was of “Contrasts” and consisted of a musical Oreo cookie with opening and closing dramatic piano trios around a sunny duo. The musicians were pianist Thomas Sauer with Gregorian on violin and cellist Colin Carr. Sauer is an active chamber musician and a frequent accompanist for such artists as Midori. Gregorian has added membership in the Daedalus String Quartet in recent seasons in addition to his prodigious other activities. Carr was heard in the region as a member of the Golub-Kaplan-Carr Piano Trio besides appearances as a concerto soloist. All three have made numerous recordings.

In Guide to Chamber Music, Melvin Berger describes Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D, Op. 70, No. 1 “Ghost Trio” as having an arch shape with “the two outside movements lucid and direct in style” with the musical highpoint being the middle movement, a “foreboding Largo.” The movement opens with the meter and tonality ambiguous and an intensive figure played forcefully by all three musicians. This gives way immediately to a gorgeous two-measure singing phrase for the cello which is taken up and elaborated. Berger says the Largo’s opening piano figure is associated with Beethoven’s sketches for the witches’ scene for a never-completed opera based upon Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The melancholy figure is set off by “solemn progressions of notes in the strings.” The nickname came from pianist Carl Czerny (1791-1857) who thought these eerie tremolos reminded him of the ghost in the Bard of Avon’s Hamlet. The finale brings relief with an atmosphere of bright spirits and warmth. Class of 2007 student Jeremy Godwin’s succinct program notes draw attention to the “sustained pitches in the strings accompany(ing) the piano’s sparkling arpeggios and scalar passages.”

Sauer, Gregorian, and Carr played the “Ghost” Trio with tremendous power and precision. Balance between players was excellent throughout and string intonation was spot on. Ensemble between players was especially exact with the opening unison unusually clear. Both the power and the rich tone of Carr’s Matteo Gofriller (Venice, 1730) cello were stunning and ravishing. The clear articulation and expressive dynamics and phrasing of all three musicians were impressive.

Brahms’ Second Sonata in A, Op. 100 is very uncharacteristic of the composer, radiant and sunny, instead of bittersweet with an undercurrent of loss. A former student of the composer and a trusted friend, Elizabeth von Herzogenberg said “The whole sonata is a caress.” This ebullient mood may come from the number of Brahms’ songs quoted or alluded to within the work. The first movement’s opening melody, which quotes “Komm bald,” is followed by the tune of “Wie Melodien zieht es mir” which serves as the second theme. The first song dominates the movement but Berger, in Guide to Sonatas says the character of the movement comes from the second song. The middle movement alternates slow sections with “lively dance-like interludes.” The finale makes fleeting references to four other songs ― “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer,” “Auf dem Kirchhofe,” “Meine Liede,” and “Meine liebe ist grün.” The last movement is famous for its extensive exploitation of the violin’s lowest, fourth (G) string producing dark, rich sonorities.

Gregorian’s and Sauer’s performance was by turns glowing and scintillating. Ensemble and intonation were excellent. Gregorian produced a fine, opulent tone in the last movement. The artists’ phrasing was most engaging.

The Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 67 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), is one of the greatest chamber works of the last century. The composer had begun the work when he heard news of the death of his closest friend, the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, and reports of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. The first movement opens with an extremely difficult passage, all dissonant harmonics for the cello being soon joined by the muted violin and the lowest register of the piano. The first movement has been described as a “mad fugue.” The second movement is a frenzied, restless dance while the third movement is a funeral dirge with the strings trading dark, mournful melodic lines above a repeated bass line of stark piano chords. This fades into the macabre dance of death of the finale. Inspired by reports of Jewish victims being made to dance in their own mass graves, Shostakovich uses a Hebrew dance made hideous through use of irregular melodic lines and accents to convey limitless pain and grief.

Sauer, Gregorian, and Carr delivered a performance of extraordinary emotional intensity and power. Their instrumental virtuosity was flawless. Opus 67 is one of my favorite works and I seldom miss an opportunity to attend a performance. Carr’s seamless, steady playing of the difficult, glassy high harmonics of the opening was breathtaking and was one of the most satisfying I have heard. All previous qualities of these musicians praised in the first two works were present in spades for the trio. The give-and-take between Gregorian and Carr in the second movement was extraordinary. This performance would have made a fine promotional recording for this remarkably successful series!