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ASPECT: Intimate Portraits of the Two Unlike Bed-fellows

New York
Bohemian National Home
02/03/2022 -  
Maurice Ravel : Piano Trio in A Minor
Franz Schubert: Piano Trio in B flat Major, D.898

Hermitage Piano Trio: Ilya Kazantsev (piano), Misha Keylin (violin), Sergey Antonov (cello)
Nicholas Chong (lecturer)

Hermitage Piano Trio (© Tao Ho)

The valuable arts organization ASPECT and its Chamber Music Series are unusual in many respects of which the two most obvious are the way the audience is treated by the organizers and that all programs are connected – or at least try to be connected – to a central idea. I will leave the first facet, the idea of hospitality, for the end. At their last event we were confronted with the concept of “Intimate Portraits” and the composers in question were two unlikely bed-fellows: Maurice Ravel and Franz Schubert.

One important characteristic of the ASPECT series is the lecture given before each performance. The lecturers are carefully chosen and some of them are internationally known musicologists or commentators, who direct the listeners into the sometimes complicated background and creation process of the works to be heard. The unenviable task set before Mr. Nicolas Chong, our lecturer for the evening, was to enlighten us in regard to the “intimate life” of each composer, neither of whom left behind much of an erotic trail. Thus the lecture offered before each of the work concentrated in finding the ladies and the men with whom these composers may or may not have been romantically involved.

Mr. Chong presented us with a whole gallery of Ravel’s prospective ladies – some such Ida Rubinstein very famous indeed – who at one time or another might have been an object of interest of this very private, eccentric, introverted, asocial and seemingly unable to show much in the “department of feelings” for the fair sex fellow. Shouldn’t we perhaps be grateful for the fact that this short (5’2”) and impeccably dressed man was very shy? Would the world be deprived of some great piano and orchestral works if he decided to devote his life to the demands of family? Well, if I am posing those questions in a bit teasing manner, it is because if I were as serious as I should actually be, my question would paraphrase the one, most infamously uttered by the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, when confronted with the Bengazi catastrophe, demonstrated her incomparable empathy by asking “At this point what difference does it make?”

Indeed, would we appreciate Ravel’s or Schubert’s music little more or much less, if we knew that there was a “significant other” in the life of either of those composers? Is music better, more noteworthy or more important when written by a composer who is an activist, gender-fluid or perpetuator of permanent victimhood? Franz Schubert made the situation considerably easier for Mr. Chong, for at least we have some documentation of Schubert’s devotion to one Therese Grob, whom the young composer desired to marry, but the social status of the two would not allow for such a mésalliance. Mr. Chong, in his absorbing analysis delivered with just the necessary dollop of humor, lead us through a whole gallery of Schubert’s friends, all of whom, both gay or straight, outlived him by decades. He, as we know, succumbed to the then untreatable syphilis at the tender age of 31.

Thus, even though the issue of composers’ sexuality, nowadays of utmost importance when evaluating art works, was perchance not declared as a fait-accompli and not settled as “Covid – science”; at least we heard a lively, well-illustrated, informative presentation that shed some light on both composers. So in the end, neither I nor the appreciative audience didn’t mind at all learning many biographical details of Maurice’s and Franz’s lives. Maybe that was even more productive than a more archetypal model of pre-concert lecture full of musical examples. If you can’t learn about the form and structure of a work, at least know a few people with whom our heroes might or might have not slept with!

The musicians who compose the Hermitage Piano Trio are all Russian born trained and now are entering the second decade of their activity as a much in demand ensemble. Instrumentally they all are superb: over the years I was fortunate to hear each of them as a soloist and they are on top of their profession. On Thursday, they shined in two momentous works in the piano trio repertory, of which, unexpectedly, the easier one to carry turned out to be the Ravel trio. It is one of the most classical compositions in his śuvre and his influences as far as the form is concerned are dating to his studies with Gabriel Fauré. Although the rhythmic models in the first movements might be attributed to Basque patterns and second movement “Pantoum” to old Malay verse-form, it still does not change the fact that formally the trio owes a lot to classical models. Furthermore, not only the motifs from the first movement utilized in the other ones, but in the short, vigorous Finale all the themes are combined in a triumphant swirl and trumpet fanfares (echoes of Daphnis, perhaps?).

And to me this finale dispels all doubts about Ravel’s frigidity, coolness, frostiness in his personal relations as the music takes over: it is a colossal outburst of intensity, explosion, rapture and one of the big climaxes in all of Ravel compositions. And just like with another great composer whose music was the best explanation for his supposed aloofness when dealing with the fair sex – and here we talk about Frédéric Chopin – Ravel gives us pause, especially when we are confronted with the question: what kind of person was he?

As far as the Heritage Trio’s performance is concerned, for me the two concluding movements were more persuasive than the first and second. I was missing a fluidity and forward motion which was substituted with perhaps a tad too much of hesitance. The “scherzo” (“Pantoum”) could’ve also use a little more propulsion: it was fine but just a bit hesitant and lost its natural feeling of insouciance.

In the Schubert Trio in B flat Major, first of the two magnificent and symphonic scale works, the three players achieved a rare degree of unanimity of detachment. I had a feeling that the players wanted to eschew any sense of sentimentality, but in their eagerness they went too far the other direction. The impression of relentlessness was prevailing and emotional longing too was often absent. Nor could I detect any particular shaping of the phrases save for a few beautiful moments when the cello sung its heart wrenching melodies or intones the love duet in the second movement Andante un poco mosso. The tempi throughout were rather on the fast side, but that bothered me far less than a most rigorous and unbending pulse as well as absence of breathing space.

I find such lack of fluidity bothersome in any music, but especially in Schubert: after all, the first two movements of the B flat Trio are all about singing. It is not to say that the Hermitage Trio lacked intensity or instrumental excellence, but rather in the hard to describe but easy to feel sense of Gemütlichkeit (coziness, ease, warmth). So here I was much more impressed with and convinced by the last two movements: Scherzo: Allegro, which rolled nicely (even if I wished for more Viennese lilt) and the concluding Rondo: Allegro Vivace, which finally displayed the previously missed sense of elegance. That being said, my criticism is more of an esthetic nature rather than based on any technical deficiency. These are superbly accomplished musicians who can hardly be blamed for paucity of skills and if I were to single out only one of them it would undoubtedly be the cellist Sergey Antonov. He was, after all, one of the youngest cellists ever awarded the gold medal at the world’s premier musical contest, the quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Competition, and his talent was highly praised by the great Rostropovich.

It was good to see the concert hall of the Bohemian National Home was filled to the brim as if the pandemic never existed. There was only one encore, Johannes Brahms Hungarian Dance in G minor arranged for piano trio. Wouldn’t any movement of any Haydn, Shostakovich or Dvorák trios be more effective as an encore? Well, not in the eyes of our performers...

Coming back to the second aspect which makes the ASPECT chamber music series so special, it is a special cordiality, rare nowadays. The patrons have the feeling that they were coming to a party; a meeting of friends: there is plenty of wine flowing before the event, during the intermission and after the concert. There are snacks to accompany the drinks and there is also some real food afterwards, when the audience may mingle and meet the artists. In times of Covid hysteria, it borders on miraculous!

The next ASPECT concert is scheduled for March 3 at 7:30PM also at the Bohemian National Home, 321 East 73 Street, and it will feature Quatuor Danel in two Beethoven quartets: Op.18 No.1 and Op.132.

Roman Markowicz



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