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Concert Review

Music at Kohl Mansion Features Young and Enthusiastic Russians

Hermitage Piano Trio Plays With Passion: Music at Kohl Mansion Features Young and Enthusiastic Russians
By David Bratman
May 6, 2017

The Hermitage Piano Trio brought its evangelical passion for the piano trio repertoire to a Music at Kohl Mansion program last Sunday.

There are more works by important composers for the ensemble of violin, cello and piano than for any other single chamber grouping except string quartet. Yet apart from the two by Felix Mendelssohn, favorites at Music@Menlo, these works are not often played. So Sunday’s concert was an unearthing of little-known surprises, although three of the program’s composers are very well-known indeed.

The Hermitage Trio, named for the famous museum in St. Petersburg, consists of three young and enthusiastic Russians. They play with deeply-felt Russian soul. Yet none of the works they presented were intensely Romantic except for the encore, an arrangement of Manuel Ponce’s song “Estrellita.”

The biggest revelation, and the largest work, on the program, was the Trio in C Minor by Rimsky-Korsakov. It’s a big, sprawling piece, like other 19th-century Russian piano trios by Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, which actually all pre-date this one. But it is less nationalistic than theirs. Rimsky wrote it in his last years, when his main occupation was colorful operas. Here he produced a restrained work, with a light Mendelssohn-like scherzo and a thinly-textured adagio with often only two or even just one instrument playing at a time.

Puzzled by what he had written, Rimsky set the Trio aside, not quite finished. Years after his death, his pupil Maximilian Steinberg finished up the loose ends and published it. He did us a favor, and the Hermitage Trio did a bigger one by playing it. The long melodies and sweeping range of this music measured up to the expansiveness of its composition.

The concert also presented some smaller gems by the Viennese classicists. Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat, Op. 11, is an early work, lighter and courtlier than his brash Op. 1 trios. It features one of Beethoven’s most sublime adagio melodies and a wildly expressive theme and variations finale. Schubert’s “Notturno,” probably an abandoned slow movement for one of his full-length trios, is a piece of luminously full harmony.

The program’s remaining work was a Trio in C by Gaspar Cassadó. A Catalan cellist, Pablo Casals’ greatest pupil according to Casals himself, Cassadó wrote his trio in the 1920s in a lively pan-Spanish nationalist style modified by French impressionism.

Throughout all these works, the players did not try to pack more emotion into the music than ought to be there, but the passion behind it could always be heard. Sergey Antonov becomes one with his cello, expressing Beethoven’s adagio melody soulfully, and giving stark intensity in pizzicato and other special effects from Cassadó. The tone from violinist Misha Keylin was light and clear, but varied and expressive. Ilya Kazantsev’s piano was a softer platform for his friends to dance on.

The importance of playing piano trios as a practiced regular ensemble was apparent on listening to the three of them together. The brilliantly exact coordination of shared phrases in the strings, with Antonov and Keylin tossing phrases to each other like experienced jugglers, over steady rolled harmony in the piano, made this concert a fine program of excellence in music-making.

There was more to the evening than that, too. Concert-goers who arrived on time were treated to an overture by a young local ensemble, a movement from a trio by Anton Arensky, another one of those serious Russian composers, and a vastly underrated one. Early arrivals could hear the Hermitage Trio coaching two other young local trios in a master class, teaching them advanced expressivity by their own practice of listening to each other’s rhythm and dynamics.

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