OK, a quick show of hands from everyone who has heard of Arno Babadjanian,*
Not many, one would think. Babadjanian, a 20th century Armenian composer and pianist, was the wild card on the mid-January program of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at Fletcher Recital Hall. And despite the phrase "20th century Armenian composer," his Piano Trio in F-sharp minor proved to be an interesting, exciting – and accessible – piece of music, sandwiched as it was between more traditional trios by Brahms and Mendelssohn.
Festival artistic director Ara Gregorian, playing violin, along with pianist Adam Neiman and cellist Marcy Rosen made no attempt to brush off this work, which likely was unknown to just about everyone in the audience. Sections of the piece are duets between pairs of instruments, then joined by the third, and the duet and trio playing was uniformly excellent. Frequent shifts in mood in the first largo-allegro espressivo-maestoso movement, from the somber opening bars to the more intense phrases later, punctuate the piece, but never lost is a sense of melody that is appealing to Western ears. The opening movement advances through a flowing melodic line featuring a long piano and cello duet and a plaintive line from Gregorian, moving toward an emotional climax. It ends, perhaps surprisingly, with a single soft plucked chord in the violin and cello. Gregorian led the slow and somber andante movement beautifully, backed by Neiman's sympathetic accompaniment, and he was soon joined by Rosen echoing the opening phrases. Neiman's steady keyboard helped hold the sections together as well as occasionally providing a glowing voice of his own. The violin-cello duet comes back a second time, equally expressive, and then Rosen and Neiman closed the movement. The final allegro vivace movement opens with considerable energy and stays at that level throughout. Here the music most closely resembles contemporary Eastern European composition (Khachaturian? Bartók?), with brief sections sounding like folk dances, which the composer often used in his music. The overall feeling is perhaps one of brashness, but it still does not become harsh or dissonant. In all, a worthwhile addition to the Four Seasons catalog, and a piece given an exceedingly fine reading.
The concert opened with Brahms' Piano Trio No. 3 in C-minor, Op. 101, a mature, full-bodied work that sounds at times like some of the composer's larger-scale works, such as symphonies and concerti, perhaps especially his two piano concerti. In fact, one wonders how the composer created such an often large-scale sound out of only three instruments. The opening allegro energico movement contains wonderful violin-cello duets, played well by Gregorian and Rosen; Neiman's piano served to accompany, complement and lead the playing, often in consecutive phrases. His playing was terrific. The second presto non assai movement is short and sweet, with nice sections of pizzicato strings against the piano and a call-and-response between violin and cello. The third andante grazioso movement features a lovely song melody; here Neiman's piano playing, in mainly the lead position, was especially fine. The closing allegro molto movement returns to the high-energy sound of the opening section. This movement surges, then pulls back, then comes to a spirited close. All three musicians played with great skill and sensitivity, and a keen feeling of ensemble. Especially interesting to watch were sections involving different dynamic ranges and how each player knew when to pull back and when to accelerate and intensify.
The program closed with Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 in D-minor, Op. 49, and this was perhaps the highlight of an evening of highlights. Pure melody from start to finish, whether in an introspective or an expansive mood, whether led by the strings or by the piano. Some of the melodies were simple (or deceptively simple), and some of the scoring was quite complex. Neiman was frequently at the forefront of the music, and he did not disappoint. The piano line in the opening molto allegro agitato movement, for example, an often quite demanding section, received first-rate playing, and Rosen's cello was fine in both supporting and lead roles. The lovely second andante con moto tranquillo movement abounded in gorgeous playing by all three musicians, whether it was Gregorian's lead lines or harmonies with Rosen or Neiman's frequent solo or lead passages. The third scherzo movement has a sprightly piano opening and dazzling (and quite rapid) scoring for all three instruments throughout and an ending in which Gregorian's playing almost skipped along playfully in youthful exuberance. A nice little six-note figure dominates the closing finale: allegro assai appassionato movement. It comes around several times, frequently led by Neiman and echoed by Gregorian and Rosen. This movement featured an emotional duet between Rosen and Neiman, later joined by Gregorian, and an absolutely furious closing run by Neiman, enough to leave the audience almost out of breath.
A note on a bit of advanced technology: Many in the audience noted that Neiman did not have anyone turning pages of the score for him. Instead, he used a small computer screen showing the score; he advanced the pages with a foot-controlled device. It worked well – he didn't miss a note.
*Babadjanian's fellow citizens thought enough of him to name the concert hall in Yerevan in his honor. For a picture, see the second photo here.