Carol Woods Retirement Community has had a long tradition of presenting free sophisticated chamber music concerts as might be expected of a center serving a musically knowledgeable population in a university town. The Merling Trio‘s high standard of playing had impressed in February 2017 so their return visit was anticipated. The piano trio is in its 30th season and has never had a change of personnel. When formed, violinist Renata Artman Knific had an instrument made by Danish luthier Paul Merling – hence their name. Her colleagues are cellist Bruce Uchimura and his wife, pianist Susan Wiersma Uchimura.

The Merling Trio is in residence at the School of Music at Western Michigan University. They made their New York debut in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 1993 and were named a finalist for the Naumburg Foundation Chamber Music Award in 1994.

Their program opened with three Hungarian Dances, Nos. 13, 18, and 6 – all in D, by Johannes Brahms (1833-97), in arrangements by Friedrich Hermann. The players made the maximum of the slow-fast tempo contrasts. Balance between keyboard and strings was superb even though the Yamaha’s lid was fully raised.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) is not famous for the high quality of all of his six piano trios – only his last two date from the composer’s full maturity. The Piano Trio No. 4 in E, K.542 is Mozart’s only mature work (in that key). Before equal temperament was universally accepted, such a remote key as E would have had a more unique quality. The work is in three movements: an Allegro based upon a simple theme, a rondo-like melancholy Andante grazioso, with a concerto-like Finale allegro.

The Merling players delivered a performance of great elegance and clarity. They gave full value to Mozart’s subtle chromaticism in the first movement while revealing the composer’s ingenious working out of the simple principal theme between the two strings after its extended introduction by the pianist. The transparent quality of their unfolding of the simple dance-like principal theme of the second movement was deeply moving. The players brought out all the stops for the concerto-like finale, juxtaposing lyric lines with brilliant fiery dialogues between pianist and violinist.

It was too bad the Merling Trio did not follow the Mozart with another, more substantial trio from the repertoire! Most trios travel with Brahms’ Op.8, Beethoven’s “Archduke” or “Ghost,” Ravel’s piano trio, or perhaps a Shostakovich or Mendelssohn. One of the less often played repertoire works would have been welcome not to mention any of numerous Haydn trios.

A number of fine, short works, suitable as encores, concluded the concert.

The Merling Trio took exquisite care in phrasing as they spun out the melody of “Berceuse de Jocelyn” drawn from the opera Jocelyn, Op.100 by Benjamin Goddard (1849-95). The tenor aria from the opera was heard in a piano trio arrangement by the librettist Charles Delsaux.

Composer pianist Gene Knific, son of the Merling’s violinist, has made numerous arrangements from the American Song Book. His treatments are more like expansive fantasies drawn from the basic melodies, far more complex than simple transcriptions. Two selections from Henry Mancini (1924-94), “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” were justly and warmly received by the large Carol Woods audience.

Two ever popular movements, “Invierno” and “Verano Porteno” (Winter and Summer) from Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons) by Astor Piazzolla (1921-92) ended the concert. The composer’s style, nuevo tango, expanded the traditional tango by use of extended harmonies, dissonance, counterpoint, and jazz elements. The Merlings delivered a vivid, rhythmically vital performance.