The St. Stephen’s Concert Series programing rivals other long-established Triangle chamber music series in both the quality of selected works as well as the national and international standing of their performers. The intimate St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, in the Hope Valley area, has superb acoustics, a fine baby grand Steinway, as well as a superb organ especially suitable for French music. Several top players are younger members of local families who have excelled, such as violinist Nicholas Kitchen who was joined by his wife, cellist Yeesun Kim, and guest pianist Meng-Chieh Lui for a choice string duo and two of the greatest masterworks of the piano trio repertoire.

Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) was to some degree self-taught because of his inability to stay the course of several structured conservatory programs. Recent biographers speculate he had an autism spectrum disorder, most likely Asperger syndrome.* He rejected the German-Romantic approach which dominated Czech conservatories. Over his career he was influenced by the French Impressionism of Debussy, expressionism, jazz, and the 1930s Neoclassicism of Stravinsky and Roussel.

Martinů’s Duo No. 1 for Violin and Cello, H. 157 (1927) was an early success, having already been widely performed and even recorded before the 1940s. It is in two movements, a Bach-like Praeludiun: Andante moderato and Rondo: Allegro con brio. Martinů loved to toy with modals such as the solo cello opening which is soon joined by the violin in another key, generating a fascinating contrast. Among the fireworks of the Rondo are brilliant cadenzas for the cello and violin in turn.

Kitchen and Kim turned in a spectacular performance from her bowing of the opening cello solo, their immaculate lock step pairing of parallel pitches, through both players’ fiery cadenzas.

The two greatest, but very different, twentieth-century piano trios are the kaleidoscopic works of Ravel and the soul-searing Second Trio in E minor, Op. 67 (1944) by Dmitri Shostakovich. The later was being composed when the composer’s closest friend, the music writer and critic Ivan Sollertinsky, died from a heart attack. The work is a memorial to his friend but also to the horrors of the genocides of Stalinism and the Nazi Holocaust. It is in four movements: a bleak first movement that exploits eerie harmonics and sudden shifts of intensity; a scherzo that careens through demented, obsessive peasant dance rhythms; a funereal passacaglia leading directly into a klezmer-like “dance of death;” ending with a reminiscence of the unearthly harmonics of the opening.

Kim’s high opening cello harmonics were spine chilling, finely matched as Kitchen took them up on the violin. Both players produced a wide, rich variety of string tone and refined dynamics. Lui’s piano lid was fully raised but balance with strings was ideal throughout the evening. His control and range of dynamics was remarkable. The ensemble brought out all the devastating, wrenching beauty of this masterpiece.

The Piano Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8 (1854/89) by Johannes Brahms (1833-97) gives music lovers a chance to glean how exacting he was as a composer. Before his death he burned all of his many unpublished manuscripts, such as early attempts to compose chamber music and other works covering his career. This trio, with its dual existence, can serve as a window on his method. The twenty-two year old Brahms composed and published Op. 8 in 1854. Thirty-five years later a much more experienced composer made extensive revisions in 1889 which were published in 1891. Kitchen, in his pre-concert talk, said most of the memorable melodies in the final version were already present in the original. Brahms tightened and economized the score smoothing transitions and eliminating “weak episodes of note-spinning.” This core of the repertoire is in four movements: a complex, passionate Allegro con moto; a mercurial Scherzo; a deeply meditative Adagio; and a dark, moody Allegro reflecting the pessimism of the aged composer.

The ensemble captured the shifting moods of the trio perfectly from the unfettered rich Romanticism of the opening to the melancholy of the finale. Attacks were razor sharp and the almost symphonic richness was brought out. Especially memorable were small details such as the exquisite, hushed episode before the louder end of the first movement or Lui’s quiet, measured keyboard opening to the heavenly slow movement.

*The autism factor, in the Wikipedia article, was new to me. It cites “Martinů’s Impressive Quiet.” Czech Music. 23 (2009), pp. 31-50.