Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review: Montrose Trio

Feb. 18, Virginia Commonwealth University

In the latest Rennolds Chamber Concerts program at VCU’s Singleton Arts Center, the Montrose Trio gave one of the finest chamber-music performances in recent Richmond seasons in a delectable if debatable interpretation of an early masterpiece by Brahms.

The Piano Trio in B flat major, Op. 8, is an early masterpiece that was substantially reworked in middle age, Brahms in his 50s reining in some of the excesses of Brahms in his 20s. But only some: The revised trio is still the expressively volatile work of a young composer, venting the same passions, with the same kinds of musical mood swings, as he did in his early piano sonatas.

The Montrose – pianist Jon Kimura Parker and two alumni of the now-retired Tokyo String Quartet, violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith – treated this moderated Brahms to further moderation.

Like many musicians today, they read the composer’s tempo markings as carrying the unwritten addendum “but slower,” turning allegro con brio into a pace more like allegro ma non troppo, adagio more like largo. They planed off rough edges, smoothed transitions, tamed outbursts.

They did all this as beautifully as it could be done. Individual playing was as close to faultless as you’ll ever hear in a live performance. Instruments sounded in perfect balance. Parker pulled off one of the toughest feats in chamber music, rendering Brahms’ piano part with clarity and robust tone but without overpowering string sound. Greensmith summoned lyrical warmth and projective impact from a cello that has the woodsy, soft sonority of a period instrument, yet held his own alongside Beaver’s markedly more brilliant-sounding violin.

The Montrose produced a collective sound that was refined but not homogenized. The listener was always conscience of three instruments wielded by three distinct musical personalities, in close accord but in their own spaces.

Their individuality was most pronounced, by design, in the brief but eventful Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 8, written by the 17-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich. This piece casts the three instruments in high relief, carrying on an animated conversation, frequently conversing on different subjects in different tones of voice and style. Parker, Beaver and Greensmith sounded eager to share those mixed trains of thought, and eavesdropping on them was a pleasure from start to finish.

Between the Op. 8s (as Parker characterized them in his introductory remarks), Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3, came across as an agreeable if occasionally turbulent interlude.

The composer, in his early 20s when he wrote the
Op. 1 trios, couched this music more or less in the style of his principal teacher, Joseph Haydn, and a Haydnesque decorous playfulness prevails. Hints of the later C minor Beethoven of the “Pathétique” Sonata and Fifth Symphony are subtle, at least until the final movement, and the Montrose gave those pre-echoes no more than their due.