Fort Worth — The first concert of the New Year brought us the debut of a new chamber ensemble: a piano trio made up of illustrious musicians Jeffery Biegel, piano, Glenn Dicterow, violin and Robert deMaine, cello. In their first appearance together, they played the first half of Saturday’s Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth concert in the Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum. If this first outing by the three is predicator of the future, the not very cleverly named Dicterow-deMaine-Beigel Trio will soon be at the top of everyone’s list.
Dicterow is best known as Zubin Mehta’s favorite concertmaster of 36 years; the conductor brought Dicterow with him when he moved from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the New York Philharmonic. DeMaine was appointed principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2012 and Biegel maintains an active concert and recording career.
They played a very romantic program of one famous and another lesser-known piano trios, which suited the temperament of the three artists. Especially in Brahms’ Piano Trio in B Major, Op. 8, the three players sounded as one. You expect such replication of interpretation in piano trios that have toured together for years, but it was surprising in a newly formed one. The reason for this is that all three musicians have the same ideas about how Brahms should be played. In addition, there is little doubt that they have played the work many times with other musicians. They delivered a memorable performance.
If there was a flaw in the performance, it is a familiar one: they became too loud too soon, so there was little room to bring out the really big moments as Brahms intended. You can understand how this error keeps cropping up in performances of intensely beautiful music. It is easy to be carried away by the glorious phrases of achingly gorgeous music being played and find yourself at a top dynamic level by accident. As they play together more, they will be able to plan the dynamic architecture more carefully so that the goose bumps arrive as the composer intended.
This same flaw appeared to affect the nearly perfect performance of Piano Quintet No.1 in C minor, Op. 1 by Ernő Dohnányi (he went by the Germanization of his name, Ernest Von Dohnányi). This is a prime example of over-the-top uber-romantic music popular at the turn of the 19th century. It is nearly impossible for players to hold back as the composer’s piece is a roller coaster of swelling phrases. However, much to everyone’s surprise, somehow they had saved one more notch up the fortissimo scale for the very end. It was all the more effective because you wouldn’t have thought it possible judging from the thundering playing that had come before. You could feel the electricity crackle through the audience as the last chord rang in the hall.
Filling out the trio into a quintet was violinist and Artistic Director Gary Levinson and violist Karen Dreyfus, who is married to Dicterow. Both are exceptional artists so the level of playing of all five instrumentalists was world class.
Dohnányi was a formidable pianist, he was a student of Franz Liszt’ favorite protégée, and he wrote this piece for himself to play. He was only 18 at the time and wanted to show what he could do to the musical world. That he did, and the work caught the attention of Brahms, who promoted both the quintet and the composer/pianist. (Little wonder; Dohnányi’s music sounds like Brahms as pushed through a French filter, such as Fauré or Chausson). The piano part in the quintet is spectacularly difficult, almost like a concerto, and rises to sustained climax after climax, staying at a very impassioned (and loud) level for great swaths of the music. The other instrumental parts are equally challenging.
It is rare to hear a performance of this work at all, let alone one as magnificently played as what was heard on Saturday. All five musicians stretched to make it work and the intense concentration in their faces was visible. But in the big sweeping moments, it was obvious that they were as thrilled by what was happening as we were.
The program opened with a piano trio by Josef Suk. Written in 1902 as Elegy for Violin, Cello, String Quartet, Harmonium & Harp, Op. 23. The composer also made an arrangement for Piano Trio and it was this version we heard. Someday, it would be interesting to hear the original version. It was lushly romantic and well played by the trio—a perfect amuse-bouche for the heavier German and Hungarian feast that was to come.
Moment of Geek: Harmoniums are reed organs that require the player to pump the air bellows with their feet as they play. They are rare these days but they were common in homes and small churches at the time and into the 1950’s when they were no longer manufactured. They are still around and can be found in antiques stores. Many were elaborately carved. However, existing ones are not usually in great shape since it is impossible to find parts to keep them in repair. They were also impossible to tune so other instrument playing along had to tune to them. All this said, it’s assumed that the original version of the Suk work was written for a specific performance where he knew the instrument was available. An interesting aside is that harmoniums were frequently found backstage in opera houses and used to subtly accompany off-stage voices, keeping them on pitch and together.