It’s hardly realistic to expect a Carnegie Hall concert, let alone one that’s sold out, to be intimate. Yet the Trio Vitruvi’s American debut there this past week was exactly that. It was also intuitive and full of vivid narratives, tracing a rewarding historical path. And the virtuosic aspects of the performance were often downright breathtaking.
Was pianist Alexander McKenzie going to be able to maintain the blend of almost superhuman clarify and vigor that he brought to the opening movement of Schubert’s Trio in E Flat, D.929? When push came to shove, yes. And he seemed completely at home with setting the bar that impossibly high, right from the beginning. The first part is basically a little piano concerto, so he took centerstage, often with an insistent pedalpoint that would become a recurrent motif throughout the rest of the concert. The ensemble programmed it as well as they played it.
That particular trope ironically, came into clearer focus with the second movement, a cello concerto of sorts, Jacob la Cour’s alternately stark and soaring phrases complemented by Niklas Walentin’s gossamer violin textures.
As the piece went on and the interplay grew more lively, it was like being telepoted back to a particularly animated moment among the cognoscenti at a post-Napoleonic Viennese salon. Ostensibly, the central theme that recurs at sobering moments throughtout the rest of the work is an old Norwegian folk melody, but its brooding changes could just as easily have klezmer origins. It’s not out of the question that Schubert encountered it somewhere in Vienna and couldn’t resist appropriating it..
Following that with Shostakovich’s Trio No. 1 in Minor, Op. 8 might seem like an odd pairing, but it worked seamlessly. Was this going to turn into a similarly vampy, subtly expanding exchange of personalities, or, as it seemed in the early going, rehashed Ravel? Hardly. McKenzie seemed to relish staking out the occasional, jarring dissonance that the composer sprinkles so artfully throughout the second half of the piece; Walentin’s calm shift away from silk toward sandpaper was every bit as deliciously uneasy.
The contrast between ebullient nocturnal cheer and poignancy rose to epic levels throughout the panoramic rises and lulls of an especially picturesque version of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90. A storyline quickly and forcefully materialized: the protagonist of the heroic opening movement suddenly grew wistful for his missing love. But then she came back, and all was bliss again! From there the dichotomies grew even clearer, particularly in the insistent/resonant tradeoffs among the instruments in the third movement as well as the sweetly nocturnal path that emerged in the fourth. As with the Schubert, the group seized every opportunity to tickle the audience with the occasional tongue-in-cheek flourish or vaudevillian cadenza. It’s the centerpiece of the group’s new album, just out from Bridge Records.
Trio Vitruvi reprise much of this bill and play additional works by Beethoven and Mozart this April 26 at 7:30 PM at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave. north of 37th St; cover is $20.