Under normal circumstances, the Davidson Trio, comprised of three Davidson College faculty members with Dana Protopopescu anchoring the ensemble at the keyboard, can rightly be regarded as a piano trio. Kicking off the 2013-14 Davidson College concert series at Tyler-Tillman Hall, the ensemble chose to shake things up. Rosemary Furniss left her violin at home, switching to viola, and UNC Chapel Hill clarinetist Don Oehler made a guest appearance, playing on three of the four pieces on the program, including clarinet trios by Mozart and Brahms. In between these trios came two chamber works by Max Bruch, and here the ensemble and their guest flipped the script together. Presenting five of Bruch's Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola or Cello and Piano, the group temporarily emended the title to allow the suite to be played by viola "and/or" cello, with cellist Alan Black and Furniss taking turns in filling out the trio.
In his introductory remarks, Black invited us to choose between cello and viola as we listened to the Bruch suite, but a similar proposition awaited us in the clarinet trios by Mozart and Brahms, for Mozart chose the viola as his stringed instrument while Brahms opted for the cello. Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio in E-flat Major, K.498, is blithely light from the opening Allegro, with an admirably even-handed division of parts among the instrumentalists. Protopopescu displayed an affinity for Mozart's spirit that was equaled by her obvious delight, frisking in the Andante and maintaining a march-like crispness in the ensuing Menuetto notwithstanding the 3/4 tempo. Aside from a slightly ungainly phrasing to start off, Oehler was constant perfection for the rest of the piece – and the afternoon – with an admirably luscious tone that never faltered. Furniss seemed unnecessarily deferential, less energetic and enthused than the others. Or perhaps she wasn't sold on the accelerated tempos that Protopopescu and Oehler set, the Andante sounding more like an Allegro and the overall performance clocking in at 86 seconds (or 7%) swifter than the Philips recording with Stephen Kovacevich and Jack Brymer. Everyone sounded content in the closing Allegretto, with Furniss harmonizing beautifully with Oehler when she wasn't following Protopopescu in stating the rondo theme. The keyboard set the tone early in this closing movement, but in its latter half, Oehler began to assert dominance, and both the pianist and clarinetist grew spontaneously forceful to signal the satisfying conclusion. By comparison, the Philips version, included in their Complete Mozart Edition, sounds positively sleepy.
While she did not appear to have drawn her bow from a scabbard, Furniss sounded more inclined to duel when she returned with Black to the stage for the Bruch experiment. Playing the third and fifth pieces, Furniss was more spirited and assertive in the Andante con moto than she had been in the Mozart, actually reaching angst-ridden depths before Oehler smoothed things over with a liquid balm. A darker meditation followed from the violist while Oehler switched clarinets, readying himself for a dreamier, soaring response. The "Romanian Melody" started with a Furniss meditation so anemic that it might have been labeled a lullaby without objection. Oehler's response didn't instantly liven the piece, but turbulence – and a touch of majesty – gradually insinuated themselves before the Romanian melody subsided into a very Jewish-flavored lament. Spelling Furniss for the second, sixth, and seventh pieces, Black put heart and muscle into every note, mellow and persuasive in the Allegro con moto, then more conspicuously amorous in the "Nachtgesang," where Oehler dipped lower into the clarinet's range with telling effect and Protopopescu occasionally peeped through with a ray of light from the keyboard. Otherwise, the pianist remained inconspicuous until the Allegro vivace, where Protopopescu and Oehler vied with each other in perky brilliance while Black was happy to keep up with the nimble pace.
Furniss returned after intermission with Protopopescu for Bruch's "Romance," giving us additional reasons to explore the composer's chamber works with some of the same zeal we usually reserve for his violin concertos and his Kol Nidrei cello concerto. At the lower range of the viola, Furniss was abrasive and propulsive. She soon ascended into the instrument's upper region, lyrically and softly, achieving anthemic power in a stately crescendo before eloquently returning to the opening theme with a well-earned poignancy. The eight-minute viola sonata seemed to be a perfect preamble to the brooding A-minor trio that concluded the evening. Black returned to the stage, making the nimble work he had lavished on the latter moments of the Bruch suite seem no less apt a warm-up for Brahms's opening Allegro. Here he was an equal partner with Oehler and Protopopescu in capturing the febrile urgency. Oehler shouldered most of the burden in the ensuing Adagio, yet the other players' contributions were also telling in bringing out the movement's darker shadings and the sad bloom of its delicate, harmonious ending. A different division of labor prevailed in the Andante grazioso, where Black handled the ingratiating lyricism most affectionately before Oehler and Protopopescu took it outdoors for a dance. It was in this penultimate movement that Oehler's accelerated approach to the trios was most effective, letting in far more sunlight than I've found on two competing recordings on the Hyperion label. Some of the jagged, nervous excitement was missing from the ensemble in the opening Allegro that you'll find with Richard Hosford playing with members of the Florestan Trio, and clarinetist Thea King captures more gravitas in the Adagio on her recording. Yet I was captivated by the adrenalin-drenched attack of the Davidson ensemble on the closing Allegro, though it climaxed with Protopopescu thundering more loudly than strictly prudent at the Tyler-Tillman. She and Black were so assertive here that Oehler occasionally receded into the background, the pianist pounding the pulse of the music while the cello stroked its troubled soul.
For lots more concerts at Davidson, extending through next spring, see our calendar.