By Philippa Kiraly
Last year at Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival, one of the concerts was devoted to Schumann’s Piano Trios. It was such an enlightening and successful performance that artistic director Toby Saks asked the same three players to do a similar concert at this year’s festival with Brahms’ Piano Trios. The result was Friday night’s concert at Nordstrom Recital Hall.
In the pre-concert recital, pianist Alon Goldstein linked the two concerts with comments on the connections between the Schumanns and Brahms and the Schumanns’ reaction, as they wrote it themselves, when the young Brahms first came to their house to play for them. Then Goldstein played one of the pieces Brahms had performed on that occasion: the Scherzo in E-Flat Minor, Op. 4.
After, Goldstein played a work from close to 40 years later, the Intermmezzi, Op. 117, in which the composer seems to be reminiscing about a time when he had moved to Dusseldorf to help Clara Schumann after her husband’s illness and death.
The juxtaposition was fascinating. The earlier work is large and expansive, a bit rambly, full of inspiration and a great sense of rhythm, but also a young man’s wish to put everything in. Already, it is clear that he must have been a fabulous pianist. The work is fiendishly difficult.
The three sections of the later work still have Brahms’ typical warmth and richness, but there is more restraint, more distillation of ideas.
Goldstein gave a masterly interpretation. If his playing was less than perfect in a few places, it could be attributed to the fact that he and his colleagues had been marooned in New York until Friday morning, and must have had to arise at an ungodly hour to catch a plane in order to arrive in Seattle by 11 a.m. with little time for rest or rehearsal.
In the concert which followed, violinist Ilya Kaler and cellist Amit Peled joined Goldstein for the Trios in C Minor, Op 101, C major, Op. 87 and B major, Op. 8.
In all of these, there was a surprising choice to play them with considerable force and volume, so much so that a great deal of nuance was lost.
When the three played with a less heavy approach, the beauty of the melodies and the subtle harmonies came through and the shape of phrases was illuminated. In those moments, we could hear the glorious sound of Peled’s cello, a big instrument with a big easy tone he never needs to force to be audible; and the delicate detail in the fast runs of the piano or violin parts.
Such moments came in the second movement of Op. 101, light, clear and expressive, and parts of the third, which could have been a song without words. It also came in the wonderful lightness of Op. 87’s third movement where the music was allowed to bloom and expand.
In Op. 8, we had longer periods of this lighter feel, much less brashness, with fleeting runs in the second movement and lilting rhythm in the last, but the best of the evening came in the third movement, slow, musing and contemplative, with more depth than in the previous performances.
But these moments of lovely playing only served to highlight the heavyhandedness, often stridency of the rest.
Brahms is a 19th century composer, not a 21st century composer. His piano of choice was an 1868 Streicher, an instrument with a clearer, lighter sound and faster decay than a 21st century Steinway. Violins and celli were generally strung with gut or wound gut. Steel E strings for violins didn’t come in until the 20th century.
Paying attention to playing in the style of the composer’s day often gives a much closer understanding of what the composer was trying to achieve, and it can be done with modern instruments. Friday night’s trio performances to a large extent left this unexplored.
Remaining concerts are tonight and Sunday afternoon. A limited number of tickets remaining will be sold at the door. For information call 206-283-8808