The first of two performances of a program of outstanding trios – “A Trio of Trios” – was presented in Duke’s Nelson Music Room on the evening of November 5. The artists were pianist Jane Hawkins, one of our most active and involved chamber and recital musicians, violinist Richard Luby of UNC, and Hawkins’ other half, cellist Fred Raimi, of Duke’s Ciompi Quartet. All play prominent roles in the musical lives of their respective institutions and beyond; the significance of this particular program – which will be repeated at UNC on November 18 (see our calendar…) – is that it continues an important partnership between the two schools, and with a superb lineup of important works rarely performed hereabouts.

Haydn’s Trio No. 41 in e flat minor, H.XV:31, is short, time-wise, but substantial in every other respect. The Ciompi Quartet plays a lot of Haydn (who wrote a lot, including a lot of trios), and Luby comes to this music with a strong background in the HIP (historically-informed performance) movement – he recorded several volumes of these trios with the Mozartean Players, releases that also involved, in other works, flutist Rebecca Troxler, who’s now at Duke. One sensed some of that deep experience in the Nelson reading, which was incisive and vibrant and full of life – fuller, indeed, than many who perceive Haydn as “Papa” might have expected. The artists threw themselves into the performance with so much enthusiasm that one wondered if they’d run out of steam during the rest of the show, which ended with one of the monsters of the literature. (They didn’t.)

There was then an ad hoc meeting of members of the Sociétié des Amis de Fauré as the artists took up the French master’s Trio in d minor, Op. 120. Early critics were not universally kind to this work, intended for piano, clarinet or violin, and cello, but it is now recognized as one of the gems of the 20th century. Beneath its generally somber cast are flashes of great brilliance and passages with the sort of intensity found in, say, the much earlier Requiem or the Cantique. The Gallic lines were projected with distinction by the players, and the audience responded with great enthusiasm. As the intermission began, it was clear that the Duke-UNC partnership was paying big dividends, for the musicians were cookin’.

And indeed they needed to be cookin’ – and to have fully-charged batteries, too – ’cause the concluding work was Tchaikovsky’s immense Trio in a minor, Op. 50 – which concurrently made it three for three in minor keys. Although it gave the composer a great deal of trouble, it’s an altogether admirable work, one that is often larger than life – it’s so big and so intense that it could well have bubbled up as an orchestral piece – or even a ballet score.*

There are several editions, and there are many ways to approach the music, which is generally pruned to some extent. When the late David Golub recorded it with his trio (Golub-Kaplan-Carr), the CD was billed as the first complete version on disc. Like Manfred, it works well enough with cuts, and – based on timings alone – I’m guessing there were some minor omissions on this occasion, although I may be mistaken. We certainly heard more than the norm, for the finale lasted nearly ten minutes – atop the 20-minute theme-and-variations sequence. Tchaikovsky’s mastery of variations is constantly evident, and each section, anchored of course by that grand theme, is both distinct and invigorating. The commitment of the artists to the dramatic and passionate music was complete, and the performance elicited a major ovation and brought the audience to its feet.

Incidentally, this program was also a welcome continuation of the Franco-Russian theme initially articulated at the outset of this season in the September Prelude chamber music festival, which, like this program, involved the cooperation of UNC and Duke, along with the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.

*Cash-strapped ballet companies that are limping along with recorded music (while still charging full prices…) might want to consider choreographing Tchaikovsky’s Trio, for its variations include several distinctive dances and other sections that could serve the ballet set admirably. Trios are less expensive to engage than full orchestras but nonetheless involve live musicians, and that’s certainly preferable to canned accompaniments, especially when played on less than state-of-the art sound systems….