Fort Worth — Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth consistently attracts top local and visiting musicians to perform in their concerts. Such was the case on Saturday, with visiting pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and violinist Tim Fain joining SMU faculty member Andrés Díaz (cello) in a performance of three piano trios, two well-known, the other less so. Distractions abounded, including a first in my experience: a dog barking backstage and an audience member with a spectacularly tubercular cough. (Could the dog have been taken for a walk around the block for the second half of the program, at least? And if you’re hacking away like a consumptive, perhaps a chamber music concert is not the right outing for you?)
Still, it was a well-designed program with fine musicians, albeit musicians who didn’t always seem to share a musical vision.
First up was Beethoven’s Op. 1, No. 1 Piano Trio in E-flat Major. This earliest of Beethoven’s published works revealed the trio’s strengths as well as weaknesses. Violinist Tim Fain, best known for his work in duo recitals with Philip Glass and on the soundtracks of the films Black Swan and Twelve Years a Slave, is a proficient musician whose abilities may be better showcased when performing contemporary music. Perhaps for this or other reasons, the performance seemed uncommitted. Intonation issues, surprisingly, were occasional concerns for the string players. There were positives, though: the three musicians each exhibited lovely, soaring tone and effective phrasing in lyrical passages.
This program was typical of many seen recently in that a lesser-known work was sandwiched in between two audience favorites. It’s a good strategy, for not only do the familiar works allow the audiences and musicians to connect effectively, but also the ensemble is able to present neglected works or new music to their listeners. This time, the less familiar work was Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor. Laurie Shulman and Gary Levinson gave a pre-concert talk focusing on this piece, by a late-19th-century Russian composer who was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov’s.
The trio’s performance of the Arensky was more successful than that of the Beethoven; musical ideas were clearly and consistently expressed by the three performers. Arensky’s music seems to be enjoying a minor renaissance these days, and gauging by this trio, that resurgence is justified. It has some beautiful late-Romantic moments in the third movement, marked Elegia, including a gorgeous cello solo that Diaz presented with lushness and beauty of tone. The second-movement Scherzo, with its ricochet bowing techniques, is saucy and lighthearted.
The second half of the program presented the often-played (and justifiably so) Mendelssohn Trio in D Minor, Op. 49. Again, Fain didn’t seem quite at home, despite his considerable technical finesse. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott seemed to be in her element, however, shaping phrases with aplomb. Ensemble was occasionally an issue—the last chord of the second movement wasn’t quite together, disappointingly. Despite the stumbles, though, the fiery last movement of the Mendelssohn was truly brilliant. It wasn’t technically flawless, but it was engaged, musical, and moving. Beethoven supposedly wrote that “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” The Mendelssohn trio had passion indeed, so by the last notes of the final movement, real, magnificent music happened.