Through the performance of relatively gigantic works from the first and last quarters of the 19th century, Ara Gregorian and his colleagues in the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival are finding ways to gain grudging acceptance of the trio as an enjoyable form of chamber music ensemble from among at least one audience member. With these two works, one does not have to think of the trio as “too small” to be enjoyed fully. Of course it helps when the three players are so well attuned to each other, and so skillful, as were Gregorian, pianist Thomas Sauer and cellist Amit Peled. These three performers gave excellent readings of Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 99, and Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 in F-minor, Op. 65, in the second subscription concert in the popular East Carolina University music series.
“Drama and Elegance” was the title of the program, with Schubert providing the elegance, and Dvořák the drama. Each piece contained four movements, and each could easily become part of a Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival “greatest hits,” if ever such a recording were to be made — and if not the entire trio in each case, then just the slow movements of each trio, which rank among the loveliest chamber music selections coming from Fletcher Recital Hall in quite some time.
Schubert’s trio, among the last compositions written before his death, is filled with wonderful melody, and all three instruments get star turns, as well as providing fitting accompaniment to each other. The opening allegro moderato movement is just about non-stop melody, beginning with energy and shifting to lovely legato passages. The contrast between a dominant piano melody and pizzicato cello was most interesting; the occasional silent pauses added drama; the occasional unison passages, especially with violin and cello, added weight and bulk to the sound. The third scherzo: allegro movement skips along in dancelike fashion to begin, and the exchange of roles in the score is notable — pianist Sauer had the dominant melody accompanied by Gregorian and Peled, and then Gregorian and Peled repeated the melody accompanied by Sauer. The final rondo: allegro vivace movement also opens like a dance (one in which the dancers do some skipping) and included passages in which Peled played a brief, almost jazzy pizzicato section, and Sauer had long and well-articulated ascending runs up the keyboard. A five-note figure came back several times in fugue-like fashion at the end.
As good a composer as Dvořák was for full orchestra, he also wrote wonderful chamber pieces, notably works for four, five and six players. His piano trio, written in the early 1880s, is equally rich and vibrant. Portions are bold, portions are muscular, and portions are intimate and introspective. The opening allegro ma non troppo movement alone could be a scaled-down version of a piano concerto, filled as it is with great intensity and color and fine piano passages. In this piece and in this movement in particular, Peled’s cello was a dominant force, always retaining a melodic drive without becoming harsh. The second allegro grazioso movement opens with music that bears resemblance to Dvořák’s own Slavonic Dances (or perhaps Brahms’ Hungarian Dances), but, as did Schubert earlier, the composer also shifts into a more legato mood, with Peled and Gregorian exchanging lovely singing solo lines, before returning to the lively opening theme. The closing finale: allegro con brio movement also could have come from the Slavonic Dances, and it featured more prominent piano passages from Sauer. The ending of this piece was almost a tease by the composer, as it moved toward a climax, only to draw back into a softer mood, then surged ahead again toward a rousing conclusion before a second decrescendo, then building up a third time and a fourth time before roaring to a finish.
But the highlights of the program were the second andante un poco mosso movement of the Schubert trio and the third poco adagio movement of the Dvořák trio. The andante was a lovely Schubertian song, and all three players played with emotion and intensity, exchanging leads and accompaniments seamlessly. Peled’s lovely cello opening, over Sauer’s expressive piano, led to an equally lovely melody line by Gregorian, and the three played effortlessly into the heart of the movement. From leading as a duet over the piano, the two string players moved into the background behind the piano before joining forces as equal partners again. The Dvořák adagio is a somber, melancholy, mainly minor-key piece opened by cello and piano, joined by violin. The three players engaged in pairs of musical dialogs, along with three-way conversations. The scoring provided mainly distinct musical voices in various harmonies, as opposed to unison passages. Parts of the movement accelerated with high intensity and emotion, and parts offered subtle beauty, especially Sauer’s solo piano lines and Gregorian’s singing violin line at the end.