Saturday, June 29, 2019

Ensemble 1828’s Debut Tour Comes to Sunset

Nicole Oswald, Isaac Pastor-Chermak, and Alison Lee (from the Sunset Music and Arts event page for last night’s concert)

Ensemble 1828 is the recently-formed piano trio whose members are violinist Nicole Oswald, cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak, and pianist Alison Lee. The group is named after the year in which Franz Schubert died (on November 19). While this may strike some as a macabre name to choose, those familiar with this site probably (all too well) know by now that Schubert was almost super-humanly productive during the last twelve months of his life. The trio has committed itself to preparing a repertoire oriented around (but not restricted to) music from the final year of Schubert’s life.

The group is currently making its debut with an eight-concert tour throughout Northern California. Last night that tour took them to the Chamber Music series presented by Sunset Music and Arts. They played as a trio for only one selection, the D. 929 piano trio in E-flat major. This was the latest work on the program, composed at the very beginning of Schubert’s final year in November of 1827. Lee gave a solo performance of the last two impromptus (in G-flat major and A-flat major, respectively) from the D. 898 collection of four, composed earlier in 1827. She accompanied Pastor-Chermak in a performance of the D. 821 sonata in A minor, originally composed in November of 1824 for arpeggione and piano. Lee also accompanied Oswald in the earliest work on the program, the D. 574 violin sonata in A major, composed in August of 1817.

D. 929 was definitely an auspicious start to Schubert’s final year. If Ensemble 1828 did not play anything later in the chronology, their account of this trio definitely promised subsequent ventures into composition that took place closer to the composer’s death. Certainly, this was the selection conceived on the longest durational scale. The group clearly appreciated the challenges of negotiating the expanse of many of the episodes in this trio, the sorts of prolongations that would subsequently prompt Robert Schumann to write about Schubert’s “heavenly length.”

As might be expected, many of those negotiations involved making sure that repeated passages did not sound repetitious. Thus, what seemed to make last night’s performance work was a sense of overall energy contours, first for each of the four movements and then over the full scope of the trio’s score. It was through that sense of contour that the attentive listener could appreciate when finality was on the way without every sensing here-we-go-again irritation at the return of a familiar theme. D. 929 filled the second half of the program, but it also left one with the satisfaction of a thoroughly engaging journey.

Lee’s solo work was equally engaging. Her two impromptu selections could easily be taken as technical exercises, but each has its own characteristic rhetorical voice. Lee clearly had nailed all the challenges of nuts-and-bolts execution, allowing her the liberty to establish her own sense of expressiveness in every phrase that she played. Most concert-goers would find both of those impromptus familiar; but there was an unmistakable freshness in Lee’s approach to execution.

D. 821 has become a popular item on the cello recital circuit. Nevertheless, here, too, Pastor-Chermak knew how to seek out rhetorical uniqueness in the many corners of the score, making his own approach to the familiar as fresh as Lee’s. D. 574, on the other hand, gets comparatively less attention. This may be because violin recitalists prefer to strut their stuff with more flamboyant selections, but Oswald brought a throbbing energy to this relatively early venture into chamber music by Schubert. As a listener, I am no stranger to D. 574; but Oswald left me feeling that I could do with listening to the piece more often.

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