What is it about great musicians and early death? This sad sociological scenario continued well into the 20th century, as evidenced by a trivia contest that used to go around where you tried to name all the rock stars who died very young, divided into plane crashes vs. drug overdoses. Franz Schubert has the dubious distinction of being the one to leave this mortal earth in the briefest of 31 years, in exalted company with Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Mozart, all of whom died in their 30’s. An appropriate Yogi Berra-ism helps to drive home the tragedy of this: by the time Schubert was my age he had already been dead for 22 years. The “what ifs?” that naturally arise when pondering the unfairness (and even deeper unanswerable philosophical and religious questions) of Schubert’s death, become even more frightening when looking at the remarkable output of his final year. Faced with this, we all must have a “glass half-filled” outlook and be grateful that he at least lived until, and composed in, 1827-28.

After more than a year of Mozart Happy 250th Birthday festivals and concerts, we in the Triangle are in the midst of a unique and brilliantly conceived mini-festival and celebration. Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Music Director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, has returned to North Carolina to present a celebration of the great works written in the last year of the life of Schubert. This was a monumental undertaking, coordinated by the NC Symphony, that involved several major artistic organizations and venues in our area and included guest artists as well as our excellent indigenous ensembles. For another take on an earlier concert in this festival, you can read John Lambert’s excellent article here.

In the past 10 years, it would be a fair estimate to say that nearly one-third of all piano trios who played in the Triangle area have included Schubert’s Piano Trio in B-Flat on their program. It is a tremendously popular work, wears repeated hearings very well, and provides a wide range of emotions and technical challenges for performers. His second trio in E-flat, written only months after the first, is grander in scope and vision, but, curiously, does not quite get the same exposure. Couplings of the two fill the CD bins, but it is rare to hear both on the same concert program. The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild presented this singular opportunity at the intimate Fletcher Opera Theater, where an enthusiastic audience had the privilege to experience music of extraordinary grace, invention and brilliance. 

Ignat Solzhenitsyn was the pianist and quasi-host for the afternoon. He was joined by two young artists, each with a slew of prestigious competition medals and numerous appearances with major orchestras all over the world. We were all very pleased to welcome to our area violinist Soovin Kim, and cellist Sophie Shao. Mr. Solzhenitsyn gave a somewhat lengthy, but very interesting introduction to these two trios. His love of Schubert was apparent as he touched on each movement of each trio and tried to summarize the character of each.

I broke up my seating by choosing the visual over the acoustic for the first-half B-flat trio as I sat in the second row. I then moved to the much sonically superior front row of the balcony for the second half. Both string players are of the type that eschew stage histrionics, but play with a sense of ease and technical assuredness that draw your attention to the music and not the vehicle producing it. I was impressed with some subtle touches in cellist Shao’s arsenal. A substantial portion of some movements are pizzicati, and Shao brought a tremendous variety of timbre and color to what often comes off as a bored-sounding plunk, plunk.  

It would be rather futile (not to mention way beyond the length allotted to me!) to go through a description of each movement, but there was one non-trivial failing to the afternoon’s performance. Schubert is known for his miraculous gift of melody, and perhaps none is more illustrative of this than the andante movements of both trios. These were taken at such alarmingly fast speeds that it nearly destroyed the melodic and harmonic beauty. This was especially pronounced in the E-flat trio where the cello spins out possibly the most beautiful theme ever written. The pianist began in a March tempo that was more appropriate to halftime at UNC. There were also times where it seemed that the group was almost too solemn and nice, when the music demanded a more carefree and light approach.

Admittedly, these are slight imperfections to what was a very rare and unique event. We are very fortunate to have such innovative programming and arts organizations willing to work together. Hopefully this kind of outside-the-box thinking will produce equally creative concepts and ultimately help broaden audience appeal.

*For a Letter to the Editor concerning this review, click here.