Chamber Music Review

Johnny Cash and Brahms? Eroica Trio Says, "Why Not?"

January 9, 2005 - Durham, NC:

The young year of 2005 began with a double dose of one of the most popular and celebrated piano trios of our time. Since forming in the late 1980s, the Eroica Trio, consisting of Erika Nickrenz, piano, Adela Peña, violin, and Sara Sant'Ambrogio, cello, has risen to the top of the classical music world as both a critical and popular success. After winning the prestigious Naumburg Chamber Music award in 1991, their career exploded and they have been flying high ever since. Chamber music lovers were fortunate to have the chance to hear these three extraordinary musicians play on two completely different programs on January 8 and 9 at Duke University. I was unable to secure a ticket to the sold out Saturday evening show so I had to "settle" for just the Sunday matinee.

Having heard many of their recordings but never seeing them in concert, this was another example of the difference between recordings and the real, live thing. On several occasions I have wished that I had saved my money and simply bought more CDs of a particular artist or group because their performance just seemed flat and uninspiring. It was just the opposite for my first live Eroica experience. Despite the excellence of their recordings, that just doesn't compare with seeing and hearing them right in front of you.

The afternoon program began with an unusual selection for a piano trio an arrangement of a trio sonata by the French baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Loeillet. As the excellent program notes by my colleagues Joe and Elizabeth Kahn correctly explain, an arrangement such as this for the modern piano trio loses much of its Baroque flavor, but that was the only drawback to this performance. The opening Largo, with a simple line played by cellist Sant'Ambrogio, did more to announce the remarkable musicianship of this group than the most virtuosic, flashy passage. This work continued in typical slow-fast-slow-fast form with a mixture of beautifully played slow, long lines and bright, quick, and expertly articulated up-tempo sections.

If it might be considered somewhat of an anachronism for a modern piano trio to play a baroque trio sonata, then it would probably seem even more odd to ponder the prospect of a piano trio based on the music of Johnny Cash. Subtitled "Poets and Prophets," the first piano trio of the quintessential American musician Mark O'Connor is just that. An outstanding violinist, composer, fiddler, and champion of country and traditional American musical forms, O'Connor based this work on actual themes of some of Cash's songs plus the style, cadence and feel of his singing. This is a substantial work, scored in four movements each subtitled. While pleasant enough and interesting upon the first hearing, I really was not very impressed with the first two movements and felt they hammered away at the same ideas without much expansion. But then came the third movement, subtitled "My June" (named for Cash's wife June Carter Cash), and I was swept away by what is one of the most moving and beautiful musical expressions I have ever heard. Then the fourth movement, named "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," arrived, and all the players got the chance to really show their stuff, featuring the kind of fiddling and "cello-ing" in the style that has made O'Connor so well known as one of the greatest virtuosos. All three players were visibly having a blast as they played this incredibly difficult music, and best of all they did it with a completely natural feel, as if they were improvising.

Brahms' Trio in B Major, Op. 8, is a work that embodies the torturous process he underwent with many of his compositions sometimes for decades until he felt the composition worthy to release to the world. It is also a work of great variety that sums up much of the essence of Brahms lush, unspeakable beauty, subtle and complex rhythmic interplay, and Hungarian folk rhythms and themes. In any type of ensemble with a violin and piano, the cello usually has to struggle a bit to be heard, especially when the violin is playing in its upper registers. This was the first time in my experience when it sounded like the cello was the dominant string player. Sant'Ambrogio's beautifully focused, powerful sound rose above the other players, but not in an obtrusive or selfish manner. I was especially moved by the cello solo in the adagio movement a moment that I never grow tired of hearing. This was truly a beautifully realized performance of one of the greatest work in the repertoire.

As if to give the audience a bit of a taste of what they missed the night before, the women came back for their encore the "Otoño Porteño," from Astor Piazzola's Four Seasons. Without the appropriate rhythmic feel and articulation, these works (and many others) fall flat as Kansas, but the Eroica trio was as authentic as if they were street musicians in Buenos Aires, providing a great way to file out into the warm January afternoon.