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New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
05/18/1999 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Allegretto in B Flat Major, Kakadu Variations, Archduke Trio
Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano

Joseph Kalichstein (piano)
Jaime Laredo (violin and viola)
Sharon Robinson (cello)

Toby Blumenthal, the pianist and founder of the Luzerne Chamber Music Festival in upstate New York, has a saying about her mountain retreat. "At Luzerne", she states, "we take the people who know how to play the notes and turn them into musicians." Chamber music is the best vehicle for the teaching of musical values for it forces an individual to feel music as a group experience and to integrate their style into the formation of a perfect whole, the expertly blended sonority of the composer's art. Although it is very difficult to produce that rare performance where the group is consistently able to sing as one unified voice, the effort is well worth the struggle when the result is music making of the highest order. There are two theories of chamber music performance. One, the "Marlboro philosophy", takes the position that the most sublime combination of musicians is one that is relatively unfamiliar with one another so that each individual's spontaneity feeds upon the others and the introduction of differing approaches makes for exciting and unusual evenings of creativity. The other proven type of roster is one which remains constant for many years. The superb Chung Piano Trio has been playing together since they were young siblings in Korea, the legendary Busch trio consisted of brothers Adolf and Hermann Busch and son-in-law Rudolf Serkin, and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio has been playing together for so long that they each know each other's moves to a degree which makes them seem like just one amazing player. The propinquity factor is strong in this ensemble (Mr. Laredo and Ms. Robinson are husband and wife) and, for instrumentalists who do not play in the wind family, it is remarkable to observe that these people even breathe together.

Each of these three artists is a star in their own right. For my money, Sharon Robinson has the best tone of any cellist alive today and is masterful in her use of vibrato (listen to her extended solo in the third movement of their recording of the Brahms Trio, Op.8), Joseph Kalichstein has a magnificently light touch at the keyboard and a secure command of the entire repertoire as well as an excellent sense of balance (rare in a chamber pianist) between the role of the soloist and that of the accompanist, and Jaime Laredo is a proud exponent of the intellectual approach to the violin (he actually reminds me of Adolf Busch) and, as demonstrated last evening, a fine practitioner of the violist's melancholy art as well.

The program opened with two of the lighter pieces for piano trio by Beethoven, the rarely performed Allegretto (one of those "without opus" marginalia) and the ebullient variations on the aria Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu from the popular operetta of the day The Sister from Prague. Both were played within a communicable atmosphere of sheer joy and a loving sense of phrasing meant to heighten the charming spirit and characteristic fellow-feeling that is unique to Beethoven. Whenever a phrase was presented by any of these artists, it was always reprised in exactly the same shape, and whenever there was unison playing it was of a pure and true nature, raising the bar significantly for other chamber ensembles.

The most affecting performance of the evening was Mr. Laredo's chilling traversal of Shostakovich's deathbed piece. This, sadly, was the last in a large series of concerts comparing the piano trios of Beethoven with those of Shostakovich. The similarities of the two great composer's careers are by now self-evident. It was Rostropovich who first compared his friend to Beethoven as a symphonist and quartet writer and it is not inconceivable that future generations of musicologists will lump these two geniuses together as definers of their respective eras. This powerful sonata was written literally as Shostakovich lay dying and the dedicatee, Fyodor Drushinin, has left a poignant memoir of his experiences at the composer's apartment, feverishly working out the details as the spectral clock ticked away. In true Shostakovich fashion, the work is filled with irony and is crowned by the ghastly reworking of the "Moonlight" Sonata that is the final movement (a movement more reminiscent of Mahler than Beethoven), paying macabre homage not only to the Bonn master, but also to the departed Sergei Prokofieff and his own reworking of the "Moonlight" in his finest effort, the third movement of the Symphony #5. Mr. Laredo played with an almost otherworldly sense of concentration and even his visage seemed transformed (and transfixed) during this electrifying presentation. It is a rare violinist who can double on the viola to this degree of perfection.

The "Archduke" was masterful. Here Mr. Kalichstein seemed to come to the fore, his delicate sensibility of touch so perfect for the diaphanous runs in the first movement, his power so vital to those amazing modulations at the close of the Andante cantabile, while the two string players demonstrated a level of sensitivity to one another's modes of expression that made one feel privileged to be in the presence of such a high level of artistry. Chamber music was written after all as a way of sharing music in the home and last night we, as honored guests, felt that we were in the abode of exceptionally generous hosts.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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