Monday, August 1, 2016

The San Francisco Piano Trio Brings a Delightful “Standards” Program to Old First Concerts

Yesterday afternoon Old First Concerts presented a recital by the San Francisco Piano Trio at Old First Church. The group was formed by two members of the faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau, joining forces with pianist Jeffrey Sykes, who teaches piano, voice, and chamber music at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. Since Strauss is now Professor of Violin at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University, the group has fewer opportunities to give piano trio recitals, making yesterday a bit of a rare treat.

The entire program was structured around repertoire well-known to those familiar with the genre. What is probably Joseph Haydn’s most popular piano trio, his Hoboken XV/25 in G major, called the “Gypsy” trio after its third movement, was sandwiched between two major four-movement compositions, Franz Schubert’s D. 898 in B-flat major and Maurice Ravel’s only piano trio. The encore selection for the afternoon was equally imposing, “Le Grand Tango,” which Astor Piazzolla originally composed for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This was scored for cello and piano and subsequently rearranged for piano trio by Reiko Clement.

Running about 40 minutes in duration, D. 898 was a bold way to begin a Sunday afternoon recital. One of Schubert’s “final year” compositions, the piece is a prime example of what Robert Schumann called Schubert’s “heavenly length,” achieving extended prolongations often by heading down unanticipated paths of modulation and/or embellishment. While this is one of Schubert’s most familiar pieces of chamber music, the San Francisco Piano Trio could still endow it with moments of suspense, particularly in their handling of full-stop moments of silence. While this piece is often enjoyed for the lyricism of its second (Andante con moto) movement and the affability of its concluding Rondo (Allegro vivace), the San Francisco Piano Trio opted for a rhetoric of intense urgency that permeated all four movements. It is likely that Schubert himself was aware of the “finality” of that “final year;” and it would not be a stretch to describe many of the piece written during that year as a race with death. That sense emerged yesterday afternoon with more than a few suggestions of disquieting expressiveness, not the sort of thing one usually expects from D. 898 but compellingly effective all the same.

Ravel’s trio was also written with some sense of urgency but of an entirely different nature. Ravel began working on it In March of 1914, but progress was slow. However, after the outbreak of World War I the following August, Ravel devoted more energy to the project. He wanted to finish as soon as possible so that he could enlist in the army.

There is a joke that, when he was first beginning work on the trio, Ravel told his pupil Maurice Delage. “I’ve written my trio. Now all I need are the themes.” This may have been his way of saying that he had designed the trio with a bold economy of thematic material, and he was seeking specific themes whose presence would be felt, through implication if not through explicit statement, in each of the trio’s four movements. In yesterday’s performance all three players knew exactly how to provide a clear account of just how strict Ravel’s economy was by the time he had completed the trio. This involved particularly deft control over alternating between statement and suggestion; and, as the trio develops, the attentive ear becomes more and more aware of how compelling those suggestions are. Such an effective interplay between in-the-large and in-the-small reasoning does not always emerge when this trio is performed, making yesterday’s performance as informative as it was engagingly delightful.

The Haydn trio provided an opportunity for the attentive listeners to “catch their breath” between those two major undertakings. While the first movement basically consists of a relatively simple theme being given more and more elaborate embellishments, the San Francisco Piano Trio gave it a remarkably understated delivery, perhaps to suggest that this was for music among friends rather than for more formal audiences. If that was the case, then one can imagine that all of those friends shared quite a few belly laughs during the final movement. The “gypsy” spirit is unmistakable, as was the sense that much of the music seemed to depict amateurs on a romp. As might be guessed, the San Francisco Piano Trio delightfully caught the spirit of the romp without ever sounding like amateurs.

That same spirit of fun among friends was probably present in the relationship between Piazzolla and Rostropovich while the former was working on “Le Grand Tango” for the latter. Clement’s arrangement clearly appreciated some of the raw qualities of the music’s humor; and the San Francisco Piano Trio knew exactly how to capture and deliver those qualities. Since the whole piece tends to run over ten minutes in duration, it is a bit on the long side for an encore. However, there are so many effervescent moments in the music’s rhetoric that one barely notices that so much time is passing. This is the sort of piece that can serve just as well on a concert program as in an encore selection.

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