Saturday, February 28, 2009

Review: Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson

Feb. 28, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

Most listeners rate musicians by the number of vivid, favorable impressions that their performance and programming make in the course of a concert. By that measure, the trio of pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson rank at the very top among chamber ensembles.

The threesome appeared in VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts as a late substitution for the Guarneri String Quartet, after the Guarneri canceled the Richmond date on its farewell tour because of the illness of its second violinist, John Dalley. Richmond has had a long string of good luck with concert substitutions: Yuja Wang, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Yefim Bronfman and Ute Lemper are some of the artists who’ve made their debuts here filling in on short notice. Kalichstein, Laredo and Robinson have performed here in the past, singly and collectively, but have never treated a Richmond audience to better music-making.

They weren’t perfect – the dropped or warped notes and episodes of congestion and imbalance that inevitably crop up in live performances did so here, in about the usual number; but the trio’s intensity of expression and immersion in the styles and spirits of three very different composers overcame technical glitches and produced truly compelling musical experiences.

The three musicians were at their most passionate and focused in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in E minor, a starkly emotive and profoundly expressive product of World War II. The ensemble brought out the essential darkness of the piece, but also the graceful and nostalgic elements that often are overwhelmed by this music’s gloomy portent.

An earlier Russian work, Anton Arensky’s Trio in D minor (1894), requires a more lush tonal fabric and a fleshier romantic sensibility – a kind of Slavic Gem├╝tlichkeit. The trio treated its melodies broadly and bittersweetly, and its more assertive moments (especially in its finale) with unbridled energy. The Arensky Trio is not the most familiar of romantic chamber works, but it’s now probably a new favorite of those who heard this performance.

The group cast Beethoven’s "Ghost" Trio in D major, Op. 70, as a herald of romanticism – the slow movement that gives the piece its nickname often sounds to anticipate Liszt or Schumann – and as a vehicle for virtuosic instrumental exchanges, especially in a lickety-split reading of the presto finale. Robinson produced an unusually effective tone of leanness and darkness in that ghostly largo.

Kalichstein spent most of the evening demonstrating not only extraordinary keyboard technique, but singular sensitivity to the delicate balancing act his instrument must play with less powerful string voices. His piano was a formidable, but rarely overpowering, presence throughout the program. Does any other pianist find this sweet spot so consistently? I doubt it.