Monday, December 6, 2010

Music review: Piano trio's Florida debut offers multi-style mastery

Emanuel Wehse,‭ ‬Catherine Klipfel and Stefan Hempel
of the Morgenstern Trio.

By Greg Stepanich

The piano trio literature is perhaps richer than it might otherwise appear at first mental blush,‭ ‬and there are some great works in this genre that are too little-known to general‭ ‬audiences.

That can surely be said of the Piano Trio‭ (‬in G minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬15‭) ‬composed in‭ ‬1855‭ ‬by Bedrich Smetana,‭ ‬founder of the Czech national school of composition.‭ ‬It can just as confidently be said that there were a substantial number of people on hand at the Rinker Playhouse on Tuesday night who had never heard it,‭ ‬but enjoyed the introduction to it they received from Germany‭’‬s Morgenstern Trio.

The members of the Morgenstern,‭ ‬who were making their Florida debut,‭ ‬proved to be an able and skillful threesome who‭ ‬handled a varied program on a very high level of music-making,‭ ‬and whose encore‭ ‬– the second movement of the Ravel Piano Trio‭ ‬– offered a tantalizing glimpse of still another style that it would have been marvelous to hear more of.

The trio‭ ‬– violinist Stefan Hempel,‭ ‬cellist Emanuel Wehse and pianist Catherine Klipfel‭ ‬– devoted the first half of their concert to two works from the first half of the‭ ‬20th century by composers who were still In their teens when they composed them.‭ ‬Dmitri Shostakovich‭’‬s Piano Trio No.‭ ‬1‭ (‬in C,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬8‭) ‬has been making steady inroads into the repertoire,‭ ‬and looks likely to join its much later brother,‭ ‬the Trio No.‭ ‬2‭ (‬in E minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬67‭)‬,‭ ‬in the canon.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a moody,‭ ‬somewhat stylistically manic piece that nevertheless is beautifully written by a‭ ‬16-year-old boy who knows how to grab an audience.

Things were slightly shaky intonation-wise in the first moments of the Shostakovich on Tuesday night,‭ ‬but Wehse managed to get things straightened out with his slowly descending primary theme,‭ ‬demonstrating a lovely,‭ ‬intimate tone as he did so.‭ ‬Klipfel proved to be a rock-solid player with excellent technique and thorough musicality,‭ ‬and while Hempel played somewhat tentatively at first,‭ ‬his performance grew in confidence as the work continued.‭ ‬The upshot was a sensitive,‭ ‬expertly realized reading that clearly brought out the young composer‭’‬s distinctive voice.

Although the voice we know him best for was evident mostly in the second movement,‭ ‬the early Piano Trio of Leonard Bernstein,‭ ‬written when the‭ ‬West Side Story composer was a‭ ‬19-year-old Harvard undergrad,‭ ‬also announces a major talent.‭ ‬The Bernstein closed the first half,‭ ‬and here,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬Klipfel was a standout,‭ ‬playing the rapid scale passages in the middle‭ ‬of the first movement with stellar clarity and dash.‭

The Morgenstern players clearly enjoyed the wit of the blue-note march that followed,‭ ‬with Hempel offering the first theme after the pizzicato introduction with real style and swagger.‭ ‬ And in the finale,‭ ‬all three seemed to relish the Russian-style folk dance middle,‭ ‬which is really the optimal way to make this piece work overall.‭ ‬Its basically eclectic composer had not yet reached a place of stylistic integrity‭ (‬as he would do‭ ‬20‭ ‬years later in his violin concerto,‭ ‬Serenade‭)‬,‭ ‬so the trio works best when its individual bits are rendered with gusto,‭ ‬as they were here.

The second half of the program was devoted to the Smetana trio,‭ ‬a big and expansive work written as an act of mourning after the death of the composer‭’‬s daughter Bedriska from scarlet fever at age‭ ‬5.‭ ‬Stylistically,‭ ‬it‭’‬s also a mixed bag,‭ ‬with Central European folk flavors alternating with motto themes developed in serious Germanic fashion,‭ ‬but Smetana‭’‬s melodic gift‭ ‬,‭ ‬his skill at handling this instrumental combination,‭ ‬and the naked emotionalism‭ ‬with which this work is imbued make it a masterwork,‭ ‬and one that‭’‬s too little appreciated.

The Morgensterns gave this music all the firepower‭ ‬it requires,‭ ‬starting with Hempel‭’‬s intense opening,‭ ‬and‭ ‬then building surely to each of its climaxes without overdoing them.‭ ‬There is a good deal of quasi-orchestral writing for violin and cello over the athletic,‭ ‬difficult piano part,‭ ‬and all three players gave the music a full measure of that effect,‭ ‬playing masterfully.‭

The second movement,‭ ‬while carefully paced and well-performed,‭ ‬could have used a little more‭ ‬folk lilt to its main‭ ‬theme‭; ‬it was somewhat straightforward when what it needed was a touch of Czech swing,‭ ‬which would have helped bring out the contrast with the first movement some more.‭ ‬ The finale showcased the overall excellence of this threesome,‭ ‬which deftly handled the driving main theme,‭ ‬with its tricky backbeat and rapid pace.‭ ‬Wehse played the contrasting secondary theme meltingly,‭ ‬after which Hempel and Klipfel‭ ‬helped the music soar.

The second movement of the Ravel trio,‭ ‬subtitled‭ ‬Pantoum,‭ ‬served as a delicious encore.‭ ‬Hempel and Wehse played the Asian-influenced main theme with a nervous kind of springiness that was wonderfully evocative,‭ ‬and the trio showed itself absolutely at home with get another compositional aesthetic.

I would gladly have sat there at the Rinker had the Morgenstern Trio decided to play the entire Ravel trio as an encore,‭ ‬and I think most of the small but appreciative audience in the theater would have done the same.

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