When the tears fall on both sides of the stage
Kaufmann Hall at 92 Street Y
Maurice Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in G major
Claude Debussy: Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano in D minor
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Duetti d’Amore for violin and cello
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor, op. 50
Alexei Grynyuk (piano), Nicola Benedetti (violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (cello)
N. Benedetti, A. Grynyuk, L. Elschenbroich
Although neither Ms. Benedetti nor Mr. Grynyuk is a newcomer to the stages of New York, I have not heard either of them in concert recently. Cellist Leonard Elschenbroich’s excellent reputation was also known to me, which made it exciting to see their names appearing as a trio at the 92 Street Y. What I heard that evening surpassed all my expectations. That concert turned out to be – at least this season – one of the more stirring chamber music events at a venue already highly regarded for the quality of chamber music offered there. All three musicians are well known as soloists performing and recording internationally, and they have been playing together ever since their student days in London. One could sense such palpable ease and comfort from each of the players that even when they looked at each other it was no more than a smile thrown from one to another, which also added another level of comfort to the listener.
The program first featured each of the individual players and then gathered them together as a trio. This time we were also given the added attraction of Duetti d’Amore, commissioned by our violinist and cellist from the well-known British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. This work was receiving its first New York performance and I dare to predict it will be far from the last, to begin with because it is good, highly appealing music, and secondly because there is a paucity of quality repertory for violin and cello.
Ms. Benedetti opened the program with Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano and showed an affinity for that jazzy style, especially in the second movement “Blues”. Like many other European composers, Ravel was influenced by the new music brought to the continental shores by the American Blacks whose jazz bands would often visit France. Here, as in many of his other ethnically influenced compositions, Ravel flawlessly catches the style of the blues with the strumming of a banjo and the free, leisurely character of this early jazz form. Ms. Benedetti also demonstrated the formidable bow-arm necessary to conquer the demands of the “Moto perpetuo”, or “Perpetuum mobile”, that concludes the sonata. Her cool sound and restrained vibrato seemed to work perfectly for that elegant composition. Mr. Grynyuk was equally effective in supporting her in the “Blues” section of the Sonata.
Next, Mr. Elschenbroich played another staple of the French repertory, the Debussy Sonata in D minor, one of the three sonatas the composer was able to finish before his untimely death in 1918. Elschenbroich’s style of playing made me think of the French school: a lean but variegated tone, elegance and gracefulness as well as a necessary dose of fantasy and capriciousness, especially in the rhapsodic first movement. In the 2nd movement “Serenade” he had in Mr. Grynyuk an absolutely first-rate partner who effortlessly and impressively matched the cello pizzicatos. I was equally impressed with this pianist’s rich but not overpowering sound production and his ability to weave the accompanying and leading lines in both compositions. He made us all realize that sometimes those piano parts in Debussy and Ravel are more than mere accompaniments. Mr. Elschenbroich’s concept and interpretation of the Debussy Sonata were ultra-virtuosic, sometimes borderline unhinged, sometimes hysterical and over-the-top but always terrifically exciting and perfectly executed.
Mr. Turnage’s Duetti d’Amore were introduced by the cellist. Written for himself and Ms. Benedetti, and first played in Scotland in 2015, it was a work celebrating Nicola and Leonard as a couple; thus Mr. Turnage used real-life terms such as “fiery and passionate” and "tender and lyrical” to express a realistic rather than idealistic vision of love and complex relationships. Duetti d’Amore is an attractive suite of five short duets conveying a mixture of moods. The writing is traditional, there are no effects employing novelty techniques (read: playing against the instrument) and it follows the scheme of the five longer and shorter duets of which Duetto 2 and Duetto 4 are the more static, subdued and lyrical. The slow-motion Duetto 4 is in places almost tonal and rarely dissonant. The final piece, in the composer’s words, “Blues”, has jazzy feeling in the accompaniment and a polyrhythmic melody whose main motif brings to mind the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto. Was this intentional? I am sure Mr. Turnage will get a lot of mileage out of his ear-catching suite and one will not have to wait long before American duos pick it up as well. It is a worthy addition to the repertory and it was lovingly and expertly performed.
Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor was reviewed here recently. As I noted, the piece is so treacherous that even the presence of three otherwise superb instrumentalists doesn’t guarantee a successful performance. This time we were lucky to have three superb musicians well acquainted with all the musical and technical complexities of the score who as performers were also able to “push all the right buttons”. Because in this Trio the piano part has a concerto-like dimension, balance can be an issue. Not here. The pianist intoned the theme for the Variations with an unusual flexibility, yet with totally logical phrasing. Each of the variations had its own style and mood; the especially problematic Mazurka and Waltz had an appropriate lilt and timing. What was also attractive was the string players’ agreement on articulation, phrasing and vibrato. As soloists they were completely comfortable with each other and therefore achieved a rare sense of unity. There was sensitivity in sound and melodic line without the sentimentality all too often present. Grynyuk, though definitely not shy in sound-production was able to produce a rich, deep, voluminous tone without a trace of harshness. Rarely had I experienced satisfaction such that with each of the eleven variations I would “nod my head and think: well, one more hurdle cleared, one step closer to a perfect score". And as far as perfect scoring goes, the Benedetti-Elschenbroich and Grynyuk Trio came pretty close to the top.
When the final funeral march came to an end – and those are some of the most and emotional pages in all of Tchaikovsky – the audience erupted with bravos and rewarded the players with a standing ovation. It was perhaps the first time that I saw a musician, this time Ms. Benedetti, who actually cried on stage. That heart-wrenching moment gave us a glimpse into the soul of the artist: though it is their job to move the audience to tears, it is touching to note that every once in a while they can also afford the same luxury on stage.