Thursday, February 11, 2010

Music review: Claremonts offer high spirits, taste in Four Arts concert

The Claremont Trio.

By Greg Stepanich

The Claremont Trio began in modest fashion 11 years ago at the Juilliard School, and since then the threesome has made well-received recordings and built up a strong following.

And the three players -- violinist Emily Bruskin and her twin sister, cellist Julia Bruskin, and the Canadian-born pianist Donna Kwong -- have shown some adventurousness in regard to repertory. They've recorded the second Mendelssohn trio (as well as the popular First), the first Shostakovich piano trio (not as well-known as No. 2), and on its most recent disc, the group offers an all-American program of music by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Leon Kirchner, Mason Bates and Paul Schoenfield (his frequently programmed Café Music).

For its concert Sunday afternoon in the Society of the Four Arts concert series, the Claremonts continued in that vein by offering an unusual choice, the Piano Trio in C major by the Catalan cellist and composer Gaspar Cassadó, to accompany two staples: the Piano Trio No. 1 (in E-flat, Op. 1, No. 1) of Beethoven, and the Piano Quartet (in E-flat, Op. 97) of Antonin Dvorak, with guest violist Beth Guterman.

The Beethoven trio that opened the concert, which was a last-minute substitution for the scheduled C minor trio from that set (Op. 1, No. 3), was notable for its clarity and springy feeling of goodwill. Kwong proved to be a player of formidable technique, tossing off the first movement's multitude of scales with precision and evenness. Cellist Julia Bruskin was the more impressive of the two sisters, with a strong, warm sound that communicated effectively.

The Claremonts work well together, as the second movement demonstrated, with Kwong offering a pure, clear take on the 18th-century coziness of the main theme, and the Bruskins answering with a more intense, forward-looking response, particularly in the minor-key middle after the recapitulation; here, Emily Bruskin opened up her sound, adding a nice touch of intensity to her solo moment.

The third movement Scherzo was clean, but could have used a little more Beethovenian drive. The finale, on the other hand, had the right sense of youthful high spirits, with Kwong again standing out in a part that was in any case written to showcase the skill of Beethoven himself.

The Cassadó trio, written in 1926 (and which was played that same weekend by the Eroica Trio in a Miami appearance), is a brightly colored work, full of big statements and rich harmonies. The opening movement, whose main theme is built on a steadily rising scale, has an attractive breadth and virility. It's not profound music, but the Claremonts clearly enjoyed playing it, and Julia Bruskin contributed a lovingly played solo after the recapitulation.

Violin and cello gave a good nervous intensity to the primary theme of the second movement, which stood out amid the slides and harmonics effects. And in the bravura closing movement, all three players delved with relish into Cassadó's flamboyant writing for an exciting ending.

After the intermission, the Claremonts were joined by Guterman, a busy chamber and orchestral musician who serves as principal violist of the Iris Orchestra in Germantown, Tenn., for the Dvorak. I could have used a more intense opening for this piece; it had power but not inner heat, though the rest of the movement was suitably forceful.

There was some more fine cello playing from Julia Bruskin for the beautiful slow movement, and in the middle, the three string players played with a nice sense of rise and fall at the tail end of one of their group statements. The third was the most tastefully and imaginatively played of all the movements, with a gratifying kinship with the dance in the way the musicians played the main theme, and especially in how Kwong gave her mazurka-style phrases the color and lilt of Chopin.

The string players sounded almost harsh at times in the fuller moments of the finale, but it had real forward energy, too, and while Kwong sometimes almost overwhelmed her colleagues, the Dvorak ended in propulsive, joyous fashion, and true crowd-pleasing style.

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