It was an intriguing program right from the first reading of the press release. Starting with one violin, then a piano and cello, finally all three in a trio. Chamber Music International also stylistically spanned this study in musician addition historically—from Bach to Beethoven and finally to Tchaikovsky. Three internationally recognized and prize-winning artists were enlisted to help make the journey, which took place on Saturday at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium, opening CMI's new season.
Violinist Nai-Yuan Hu, gold medalist of the 1985 Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels, played Bach's Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003, for Solo Violin. His approach was a hybrid. He used what is the current thought on baroque performance practices while playing on a modernly outfitted violin. The current steel and wound strings are a far cry from the mellow gut strings of Bach's day. Also, the different placement of the bridge back then, and longer tailpiece, would have given the gut strings additional depth to the resonance. Without vibrato and using fingerings that allowed for many open strings, the sound was hard and shrill. The E string was especially jarring. Hu also took a strict approach to tempo, without much in the way of nuance. The result was a performance that was intellectually interesting but lacking in involvement.
Beethoven's Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69 for Piano and Cello fared better in the hands of pianist Jon Nakamatsu, Grand Prize Winner of the 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, along with cellist Bion Tsang, winner of an Avery Fisher grant and Bronze Medalist in the IX Tchaikovsky Competition. By the time we got to Tchalikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, the performance was finally firing on all cylinders.
Nakamatsu is undoubtedly one of the best collaborative pianists working today. He has an instinctive ability to anticipate how the performance is moving along and thus is precisely with the other players no matter how the inspiration of the moments takes musical thread. He was especially effective as the engine driving the Tchaikovsky. Tsang has a wondrous cello sound and a sure technique. His instrument sings in a rich baritone which declares its presence without ever dominating the texture. Hu also warmed up to Tchaikovsky's neurotic romanticism and, by the time the theme and variations movement that make up the second part of the trio reached the big moment at the end, all three were playing with inspiration.
All this considered, the overall effect of the concert was not that of a series of fiery performances. For me, it all added up to a sum that was less than the value of the individual parts. Not every concert has to be a mountaintop experience. An intellectually stimulating and impeccably played performance can be every bit as satisfying as a demonstration of musical fireworks. Still, the enthusiastic ovation at the end demonstrated that the audience saw it differently.