When a great violinist decides to lend his name to a trio
92 Street Y
Ludwig van Beethoven: Variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu”, op. 121a
Anton Arensky: Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, op. 32
Johannes Brahms: Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, op. 87
Zukerman Trio: Angela Cheng (piano), Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Amanda Forsyth (cello)
A. Forsyth, A. Cheng, P. Zukerman (© Cheryl Mazak)
Pinchas Zukerman is a violinist whom I have heard almost from the very beginning of my Concert attending in NewYork City, which is now five decades. I heard him when he was still in his early twenties and when, along with his co-Israel born colleague Itzhak Perlman, he ruled the violin world that up till then was ruled by Russians. Over those decades, I heard him as a formidable soloist, as a chamber musician, and also in a trio with his friends Daniel Barenboim and the late lamented Jacqueline du Pré. I cherished his concerts as an incomparable violist, and I am among those who to this day consider him the best there was. I saw him conduct chamber and symphony orchestras and play in the ensemble that he established as the Zukerman Chamber Players.
I don’t know how to explain the fact that I missed the Trio’s previous New York performances and thus I was eagerly awaiting their return to Kaufmann Hall at the 92 Street Y. Other than the famed violinist whose name the ensemble carries, the trio consists of the South-African born cellist Amanda Forsyth and the Canadian-Chinese pianist Angela Cheng. All three are now based in Canada where for years Mr. Zukerman was an artistic director of the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa and Ms. Forsyth (privately Mrs. Zukerman) lead the cello section of the orchestra.
It was then with great interest that I went to hear this group now called the Zukerman Trio when they performed an attractive and “listener friendly” program at the 92 Street Y. Rather than settling for one of the seven better known trios by Beethoven, they decided on the set known as Variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu”. One should not be mislead by the late opus number – after all, could that be right after the Diabelli Variations op. 120 ???? – for Beethoven must have written this set in his early days and only in 1824 did he rewrite and revise the earlier score. What indicates its early beginning is for sure the quite prolonged, serious-in-nature introduction – it takes almost a third of the performing time – similar to those we find in Beethoven’s early compositions such as the sonatas for Piano and Cello or the Trio in G Major op. 1 No. 2. One can notice another similarity to the early works in the very treatment of its variations: the first three are solo pieces for each instrument. What however points toward the reworking and revising is the penultimate variation where we can almost hear the rushing triplets from the Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony and the contrapuntal treatment of the texture. Beethoven was a master of variation form and it should surprise no one that even the trite, naďve theme of the once popular operetta song receives a masterful adaptation. It should also come as no surprise that of the three instruments the piano get the work-out and some variations, such as the one with broken octaves, are punishingly difficult.
Being a virtuoso player, Ms. Cheng had no audible problems with even most challenging section of this or the other two trios. Of the two string players, Ms. Forsyth is more extroverted, more forthcoming and more visually seeking cohesion with her partners. Mr. Zukerman, now 70, shows still impeccable control of his bow, didn’t lose any of his grace and his intonation was also above reproach. Yet there were moments, like in the variation for violin and cello, where, for some inexplicable reason, he sounded a little tame, reserved, perhaps timid.
The same reticence was felt in the beginning of the Arensky Piano Trio No. 1 which continued the program. The opening theme, in this reviewer opinion, requires a tad more ardent, “soul-pinching” approach from the violin, and that I heard to better effect in the cello part, which in that piece often assumes a dominant role. As it is known, Arensky composed this elegiac, sometimes melancholic composition not only to honor recently departed Tchaikovsky, who was his mentor, but also to pay homage to the great Russian cellist Karl Davydov, who was friend both with Tchaikovsky and Arensky. The busy finger-work in the piano part sounded effective and effortless under the hands of Ms. Cheng and generally the Allegro had all the necessary spirit. By the recapitulation, the sound of the violin also bloomed and everyone seemed more relaxed in the singing passionate melody of the theme. The Scherzo movement always sounded to my ears as if it was inspired more by Saint-Saëns in his Piano Concerto No. 2 than by any Russian model. Here Arensky hurls at the pianist some very fast and difficult scales which were not always, as typical of live performances, negotiated to perfection but the whole possessed the necessary appeal and charm.
The Elegia is the true centerpiece and here the tribute to the departed friends is most tellingly shown. For once the piano assumes more of an accompanying role and the strings with their parts predominate. The cello starts the dirge and then the violin joins the mournful duet: here at last I heard from the Guarneri del Gesů the rich, golden sound for which Mr. Zukerman is famous and his compelling phrasing. When the time arrived for the piano to intone the woeful melody, Ms. Cheng did it with a lovely tone. The finale is not as inspired as the previous movements but got a nice treatment and its closing pages were moving: just like in the Tchaikovsky Trio in A minor, Arensky comes back to the opening pages, another obvious homage the master.
I expected a lot of the Brahms Trio in C major: after all our violinist not only heard some of then most memorable performances of Brahms chamber music but participated in them and recorded some to great acclaim. It was a basically very well executed performance and it is quite possible that it is only a matter of esthetics which prevented me from accepting it completely. It seems to me that in almost any of Brahms music, chamber or orchestral, we embark on a trip and how to get from point A to point B: one can travel in a luxury liner or on a motor-boat and each manner of transportation carries its own excitement. I tend to think that Brahms music gains with a broader approach and there were moments when I missed it in the Zukerman Trio performance. It is also a manner of reading the score and applying Brahms agogic markings either literally or only as guidance, but that’s what for this listener separates a correct and even musical performance from a truly memorable one. What was too often felt was a sense of impatience or sometimes even rushing which robbed the score of its gravitas. In the second movement Andante con moto, which is a set of variations on a Hungarian melody, the edginess and restlessness was mostly demonstrated in the violin part even when the piano tried at least to sing out the phrases. For my taste there was scant Hungarian inflection in intoning both the theme and its recurrence later in one of the variations for violin and cello. I also felt that on occasion, though often enough, a raise of dynamic level caused a faster pulse of music. It is not the role of a critic to suggest what the performers should do, but I suppose if they collectively, especially in that magic second movement, just once sang their respective lines of music, the results would be dramatically different. It is so nice when a musician lingers for a moment on the group of even notes or on the beginning of a phrase. Yet, in this Brahms trio it happened infrequently.
Not surprisingly the very Mendelssohnian Scherzo, though Mendelssohn was gone already for more than three decades, was light-footed, sprightly and expertly played, especially by Ms. Cheng, who is confronted there with a fiendishly difficult task. And there can be nothing but praise for the Finale: an Allegro giocoso which luckily was taken at leisurely tempo and impressed with the interplay of piano and strings. We parted company with a favorite encore of this group, an arrangement for piano trio of Fritz Kreisler’s Miniature Viennese March played here with a great deal of charisma, elegance and style. In announcing their encore, Mr. Zukerman reminded us that just a day earlier, February 2nd, was a shared birthday of two giants of the violin: Mr. Kreisler himself and a little younger genius named Jascha Heifetz. That little tribute to Kreisler was a charming way to end the afternoon and to send patrons home smiling.