A solid program of Schubert delighted a full house at John O'Brien's Music House. Impresario John O'Brien, piano, and mezzo-soprano Jessie Wright Martin opened the program with eleven songs selected from the over six hundred of Schubert; the first group was "Ganymede," "Der Schmetterling," "Frühlingsglaube," "Auf dem Wasser zu singen," "Gott im Frühling," and "Die junge Nonne." The second set was "Rastlose Liebe," "Fischerweise," "Der Alpenjäger," "Lied der Mignon," and "Gretchen am Spinnrade." O'Brien was playing his own 1887 Steinway model C; his insouciant playing is invariably masterful. He was able to range completely from the quietest ppp to the most raging fff without ever being painful to the ear – not the easiest trait on this wonderful instrument, which is really slightly too big for the room. Martin did not seem warmed up or at ease as the program began, but still beautifully conveyed the playful spirit of "Der Schmetterling."
Whenever I imagine the style of the piano-players who accompanied the silent movies, I always think of music that sounds like a caricature of bad Schubert. And those bad piano-players must have cut their teeth on "Die junge Nonne:" when O'Brien began that accompaniment, my companion whispered to me, "And then the train began to come," just as I scribbled on my program "train started to come." And in Schubert's hand, Schubert's style is brilliant; he has portrayed perfectly the first line of Craigher's poem,
How loudly the howling wind roars through the treetops!
The rafters rattle, the house shudders!
Thunder rolls, lightning flashes,
And the night is as dark as the grave!
Martin, who has strong credentials in 19th century opera, has a voice rich with too much vibrato for me. Her German was clear, her gestures expressive, her intonation precise, her singing filled with verse, yet I could not get excited about her performance until the second set. Perhaps it was the darker quality of the poetry and the darker quality of the composition, perhaps Martin was warmed up, but at any rate her singing was much more powerful. Her voiced sounded fuller, richer, stronger. In "Lied der Mignon," Martin evoked a brilliant sadness; in "Gretchen am Spinnrade," Martin knocked it out of the park. I felt for the first time that we were hearing first-class powerful singing.
After a glass of red and delicious canapés by The Kinston Trio (blue cheese and collards on crackers and greasy-rich little hot dogs wrapped in bacon), the second half of the music came on with a rush of sonority. O'Brien was joined by Leah Peroutka, violin, and Chris Nunnally, cello for 35-odd minutes of the Piano Trio in B-flat, Opus 99. This trio is one of the most well known, most beloved, and most accessible of Schubert's compositions. There could not be more contrast among the affects of the three players. O'Brien relaxed, insouciant; Peroutka elegant and impassive, communicating only through her music; and Nunnally, animated both facially and in his body movements. Nunnally soon had two rosin streaks on the knee of his trousers from the vigor of his bowing on the top string. These three are sublimely well matched, and I was completely enthralled by their seamless oneness in the music. Even with the lid fully open, there was perfect balance among the three instruments and perfect blending of sound. At the beginning of the second movement, andante un poco mosso, the violin is silent at first. Peroutka closed her eyes, and the briefest of endearing smiles passed across her face before her entry. The badinage between the three players in the third movement was especially fine. In the fourth movement the three were totally working as one, at their peak; the trio resolved with most effective fff. Schubert is hard work for both players and audience and worth all the effort. I wouldn't want to speculate how often Piano Trio 1 is performed live in North Carolina; these three Tar Heel players made this rare fine music sound like an everyday occurrence in Greenville.