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Among the most intimate of chamber music ensembles, the piano trio highlighted the opening of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival of Eastern North Carolina at East Carolina University. Two meaty examples from the trio repertoire by Beethoven and Mendelssohn received excellent treatment by violinist Ara Gregorian, cellist Colin Carr, and pianist Thomas Sauer. And an extra attraction filled out the first program in the festival’s eighth season: Beethoven’s arrangements of English folk songs for piano trio and baritone, with John Kramar as soloist.
Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat, Op.. 70/2, contains sections that require both muscle and delicacy, and the three performers delivered just the right mix. Near the end of the opening poco sostenuto movement, for instance, the ascending melody line swirled about vigorously before settling back into a lovely violin-cello duet played against the piano. The allegretto movement that followed received forceful attacks from all three players, including Gregorian’s quick fingering and Carr’s pizzicato sections.
The third movement, allegro ma non troppo, included two distinctive piano parts: odd, unexpected descending intervals (four times!), and the delightful raindrop effect that was not unlike the cascading passage in Chopin’s third scherzo. The final allegro movement opened with bursts of solo fire in all parts and continued at a fairly furious pace.
The program notes for the folk song arrangements indicate that Beethoven needed to pay the bills, so he accepted a commission to arrange several folk songs from the British Isles. The trio and Kramar offered six of the songs, covering a range of topics from drinking to marching to nocturnal reveries. Kramar’s full, rich baritone handled the more vigorous songs especially well, particularly William Smyth’s “The Soldier,” with its echoes of the tune from “The Royal Grenadiers,” and Smyth’s “Come fill, fill, my good fellow,” a rousing drinking song. But he also gave a tender reading to Smyth’s “When Mortals all to rest retire,” a pretty song with an overwrought lyric.
Kramar also sang the traditional Scottish ballad, “Faithful Johnie,” the Irish song “The Pulse of an Irishman,” and Joanna Ballie’s “O swiftly glides the bonny boat.” For the most part, the trio provided a solid background for Kramar’s voice, but in “Pulse,” they added an extensive instrumental bridge between verses, and in “Come fill” they added a spirited closing.
Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66, brought the evening to a most satisfying conclusion. Written in the year before his death, this trio somehow manages to sound much fuller than just three instruments. And while he certainly was more than just a supporting player in the two Beethoven works, pianist Thomas Sauer was the key component of this exciting selection.
After an opening allegro energico e con fuoco, which tended to churn ahead non-stop, Sauer began the second movement, andante espressivo, with a lovely solo that has been referred to as one of Mendelssohn’s “songs without words” and then gently handed the theme off to the two string parts for a beautiful duet. Before the movement ended, Carr offered great playing that contrasted the cello’s upper and lower ranges.
Sauer was in near-constant motion in the scherzo movement, and the gorgeous fourth movement, allegro appassionato, with its reference to a German chorale, introduced by Sauer, brought all the musical forces together for a rousing finish.
Gregorian, the festival’s artistic director, Carr, and Sauer have performed together before in the Four Seasons series, and they seem to play off each other’s musicianship with consummate skill and grace. While they won’t be returning to the Greenville stage this season, let’s hope they will continue to be part of future seasons.