There is a long tradition of the piano trio being the "supergroup" of chamber music. While these collaborations will almost never attract hordes of classical groupies or become financially lucrative like "The Three Tenors," they seem to be favorites of both audiences and performers alike.
From early 20th-century groupings like Rubinstein/Heifetz/Piatigorsky and Cortot/Thibaud/Casals to Istomin/Stern/Rose, Ashkenazy/Perlman/ Harrell, and many others, virtuosos of the day, with highly successful solo careers, are drawn to form piano trios. Perhaps it's because this configuration is the closest one can get to playing with others while still retaining the ego-gratification of being nearly a soloist.
The members of the latest supertrio - pianist Yefim Bronfman, violinist Gil Shaham (whom local audiences heard last year in an extraordinary performance of Brahms' Violin Concerto, with the NC Symphony), and cellist Truls Mork - are all world-class soloists who recently joined in this new venture. They played to a well-attended, but not filled, audience on Wednesday evening, October 16, as the 2002 Great Artist Series (which runs, atypically, on a calendar basis) continued at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh.
I have now attended many events at what is officially called the "A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts," and in a short time it has become my favorite venue in this area. It has intimate, comfortable seats, and attractive but not disruptive stage lighting, and every seat in the house has the potential to have excellent sound and sight lines - provided performers and management cooperate .
Arriving in the hall I noticed that the whole setup was skewed right of center and - most glaring of all - the cellist's chair was almost completely facing stage right. It is understandable that at orchestral or large chamber music concerts one will not be able to see everything, but with three players this should not happen. I figured he would certainly correct this when the group sat down, but Mork actually positioned himself at an even more extreme angle. This not only presented his back to more than half the audience but also affected the overall balance. Of course performers need to communicate with one another, but this oversight bordered on being rude. When paying $40 to hear and see a performer, one should be able to do just that.
It was under these conditions that I listened to the opening work on the program, the relentlessly popular Piano Trio in B Flat, by Franz Schubert. It was just last month that I reviewed this same work played by the Perlman/Schmidt/Bailey Trio, at Duke. It is important to approach every performance, even those of the most over-performed works, with an open mind and fresh ears. However, the right-leaning stage setup immediately revealed its defects. This cello seemed muted and distant, and I had trouble distinguishing lines that I knew almost by heart. While it might have been simply because he was playing seated (vs. standing), it seemed as if Shaham was lethargic and distant, particularly when compared with his very demonstrative Brahms Concerto performance. Obviously, performers of this caliber can play this music if awakened from deep sleep, but I felt a lack of involvement in this reading. So, at intermission, I was thinking that this was just another group of virtuosos going though the motions.... And then came the Tchaikovsky.
The Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, Tchaikovsky's sole work in this genre, was written in Rome in 1881-2 during a period of severe personal turmoil in his already unhappy life. It served as an expression of grief and homage to Nikolay Rubinstein, the Russian pianist and composer who had died unexpectedly; Tchaikovsky had been unable to attend his funeral. This is an expansive and large-scale work that clocks in at just under 50 minutes. In both emotional intensity and technical demands, it is worlds away from the trios of, say, Haydn, generally considered the originator of the "modern" piano trio form. It requires tremendous stamina, technique, and interpretive skills and is not very often performed. It is definitely a work that is geared towards professionals; please don't try it at home!
From a different seat (third row, audience left), it was as if a veil had been lifted and a new world opened up. From the opening elegiac theme, played by the piano alone, it was evident that this is a work that these men truly love, and they proceeded to pour their hearts into it. One could see the players' subtle yet clear signals, smiles and facial expressions. The central movement, basically a long set of variations on a theme, is in the tradition of other great romantic works in this style. The beautiful, slow theme, worked through twelve variations and a coda, is brought back in its original form on several occasions. Those who could not remember how it went when this was done were probably asleep. One of the more intriguing variations is a highly spirited and upbeat fugue. One doesn't normally associate Tchaikovsky with great counterpoint and fugal writing, but this variation left everyone gasping. The finale has one of those grand endings where you think the music cannot get any more intense and climactic - but instead of ending, it goes on. As in the Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique"), Tchaikovsky's rousing, exhilarating "ending" is a false one. He ends this Trio, like the Symphony, in a slow, achingly somber movement, filled with pathos and a recap of the opening theme. It ends as it began, with the solo piano, this time playing a funeral march that tapers off to an almost inaudible whisper. Bronfman and Shaham and Mork gave it a truly transcendent performance. The group then returned for an encore and dazzled everyone with the second movement of Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2.