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Concert Review/ Vienna Piano Trio

img  Tobias Fischer

Mahler: Piano Quartet in A Minor (1876) – Nicht zu schnell
von Zemlinsky: Piano Trio, Op.3
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht, Op.4

The Toronto Summer Music Festival, now in its fifth year of installation, provides local enthusiasts in the Arts and the many visiting students from local and abroad a summer mecca of classical music. Each year, an increasing standard of world-class artists are presented during the 4 week duration, with an enduring vision to enlighten, to educate, and to entertain. The past Tuesday, the TSMF officially opened with Anton Kuerti’s solo piano programme, in which the Canadian pianist-pedagogue devoted a recital to celebrate the bicentenary of Robert Schumann. Tonight, the Walter Hall in the University of Toronto houses one of Vienna’s most celebrated ensembles, Vienna Piano Trio with a programme entitled “Mahler and Friends.” Envisioned by music director Agnes Grossman, this chamber music explores and highlights the intricate personal relationships and musical influences between three important Viennese composers at the turn of the 20th century: Gustav Mahler, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.

The Trio opened with Mahler’s one-movement Piano Quartet in A Minor, a work written during the composer’s student days in 1876. Working sketches to the remainder piece have been documented, although these pages remain in premature form such that much work remains needed to render a fully-completed version. Nevertheless, in this completed first movement totalling slightly over ten minutes, one could trace some of the idiosyncrasies that lay the foundations to later aspects of Mahler’s musical styles: the key of A minor, for instance, endorses an underlying darkness over-arching this music, even at the expense of a disguised serenely beautiful melody; an upward climb in harmonic progression striving towards a resolution in which the music never ultimately reaches, but rather on an asymptote seeking to be fulfilled. These are just some of the Mahlerian characteristics highlighted here. Moreover, the movement is first evidence of Mahler’s strong beliefs to the traditional classical (Sonata) form, which he later explores to fuller capacity in his Symphonies.

Having only first rehearsed the work with guest violist Sharon Wei on the Friday evening, the group initially starts under reservation, but gradually builds into a stormy momentum in the development. The main theme, delivered by Stefan Mendl on the piano, is returned en force in the recapitulation section, although the instrument does sound a tad dry in its acoustics, lacking in lustre and clarity, and this handicap Mendl in his efforts to bring out the pianistic colours on the instrument. Ms. Wei is particularly attentive to her partners’ melodic lines throughout the duration, with acuity in tone balance that befits her collaboration with violinist Wolfgang Redik and cellist Matthias Gredler.

von Zemlinsky’s Piano Trio Op.3 is in fact the composer’s own rearrangement to a trio that is originally written for the Clarinet, Piano and Cello in 1896. Very much influenced by the romantic traditions of Schubert and Brahms before him, this trio outlines von Zemlinsky’s earliest days as a composer for this chamber music form that he later develops into fuller expanse in his set of String Quartets. In this Piano Trio, he infuses idioms of dense contrapuntal writing (first movement Allegro) and skilful treatments in the form of variation in the voices between the three instruments (second movement Andante and third movement Allegro). Mendl has taken on a crucial, lead role to keep the work in its consistency and cyclic unity; he sets the stage to provide the emotional state of this piece, giving rise to the exquisite fine-tuned balance among the three instrumentalists. Out of the three movements, one cannot resist the Vienna Piano Trio’s highly magnetic second movement, which they deliver the melancholy with a soaring sense of beauty and spaciousness. Then, in the highly-charged and Scherzo-like ending of the third movement, the piano brings back musical material from the first movement opening theme. This is perhaps symbolic, as if it represents von Zemlinsky and his look back into the past. The melodic interactions of the three instrumentalists, although abrupt at times and even suggestive of urgency at the end, do provide an overall sense of refreshment vitality. Although identified as his Opus 3, the creative fruits of this work can explain in part an increasing attention to revisit von Zemlinsky’s contributions in music history.

Also a Vienesse by birth like his mentor-friend von Zemlinksy, Arnold Schoenberg is considered to be the major proponent of the Second Vienesse School. Transfigured Night (1896) is perhaps one of Schoenberg’s centerpieces that continue to champion with great popularity in today’s standard repertoire. The Vienna Piano Trio presents pianist and Schoenberg expert Eduard Steurmann’s version for the piano, violin and cello, which otherwise is better known in its orchestral version. One of the great assets of the performance tonight is the three performers’ unifying perception on the late romantic style. It is expressionism, but not to the degree of overt exuberance. As Dr. Robin Elliott explains in his pre-concert lecture, this work depicts how Schoenberg challenges and resolves two enduring structural questions he sets on himself: first is how to combine musical and literary forms in reconciliation; second is how to put multi-movement Sonata form structure into a single movement. By reworking the original work for string sextet to a piano trio, one can appreciate how Steuermann concentrates each of roles of the three instruments to startling effects. Each instrument can be traced in reference to the two major characters and the ever-conquering power of love to which the music is based. Overall, Mendl-Redik-Gredler each gives pungent treatment of their melodic lines – particularly, there are those endearing violin-cello dialogues in the opening (where sadness hovers over the woman’s confession) and the Finale (where love is the source of the man’s ultimately acceptance and forgiveness of the woman) sections, which represent the intimate rapport between the man and the woman.

In order to resolve the heightened emotional tension set forth by these three composers, the Trio decides to return on stage with an encore. Wolfgang Redik jokingly announces it would be a challenge to come up with something better after Mahler-von Zemlinsky-Schoenberg, but decides to present a piece written by a composer most revered by Mahler. The Trio presents the second movement Andante from Schubert’s Piano Trio in B Flat (D.899), in which its nocturnal qualities are captured at the very best by the Vienna Piano Trio.

By Patrick P.L. Lam

Image by Patrick P.L. Lam

Homepage: Vienna Piano Trio
Homepage: Toronto Summer Music Festival

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