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A Perfect Trio

by B.A. Nilsson on December 12, 2013

Sophie Shao and Friends
Union College Memorial Chapel, Dec. 8


The sun was setting, the hall was warm, so I drifted into a kinda-conscious twilight in which the music became an emotionally laden dialogue, a passionate exchange between lovers. Words weren’t needed. Spoken communication requires the speaker to translate thought and feeling into words and the hearer to achieve what’s at best an approximate understanding by translating them back. Music does it more directly, and the third movement of Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 revealed itself a tragic love song.

Sophie Shao

First there was the violin (brilliantly played by Frank Huang), with a melody that began, in Schumann-esque fashion, on the second half of the first beat of the measure, as if a little gulp of breath must be taken. It pleaded, this melody; it was a lover’s entreaty, pushed aside by the cello’s haughty response. The cello wasn’t suffering as the violin was, so the violin responded with a more confident approach. In my dazed state, the sorrow beneath it was piercing.

The cello grew accepting but bossy, but soon I was aware that the piano (Gilles Vonsattel was the master at the keyboard) had been manipulating this pair all along—someone’s parent, perhaps? An old family friend? Brahms?

The quarreling couple had been together for years. You could feel their history in the reconciliatory communion that followed, the trio finishing the movement in peaceful accord. And in the up-tempo but autumnal finale, the cello’s confident singing kept the high-spirited fiddle in line.

Sophie Shao and Friends have been regular visitors to the Union College Concert Series for several years, with the amazingly versatile cellist presenting different small-group combinations.

Last Sunday’s concert opened with a trio by Haydn that I’d term sparkling if that adjective weren’t in danger of being permanently attached to that composer by deadline-pressured hacks like me.

Oh, all right. It was sparkling. Haydn wrote his Trio No. 32 in A Major in 1793, by which time he had the form down pat and wove a three-movement work in which the cello has fully transitioned from figured bass to equal partner. And the segue from charming slow movement to spikily agitated finale presaged what Schumann would more pontifically come up with later in the program’s first half.

The program notes term Schumann’s trio “a definitive study in bi-polarity,” a tiresome judgment rendered only because the composer was nutty enough to warrant some self-imposed asylum time—but anyone crazy enough to pursue composing (or performing, or anything artistic) for a living dances near the edge.

As for the performance: we heard it in the Haydn and the dynamics of the Schumann only confirmed that Shao and friends achieve a remarkable clarity of presence. Although the three instruments philosophically function as one, there are moments when you should be hearing one or two of them more prominently, and they achieve this throughout. Tempos are well chosen and there’s not an over-emphasis on “interpreting” the music, in the sense of slathering upon it unnatural pauses as if to proclaim some super-cosmic emotional kinship. Let the music speak for itself and it will accomplish what’s needed, so my thanks to this threesome for doing so.

Walloping us with a big piece of Brahms after a big chunk of Schumann makes for a somewhat unvarying program, but it’s hard to complain about witnessing so thoughtful a performance of Brahms’s Trio No. 2. And no better tribute to the playing of this trio is needed than to acclaim something as simple as a crescendo they achieved in a passage leading to the return of the first movement’s first subject—it was hair-raising.

Even in a chamber-music setting, Brahms’s thoughts seem big enough to be orchestral—which is why Schoenberg orchestrated one of Brahms’s piano quartets.

C Major seems awfully sunny for Brahms who, sure enough, gives us a slow movement in the relative minor, a relaxing theme and variations. But the subsequent scherzo sounds like something Mendelssohn might have written in a darker mood, a c-minor presto that seems relentlessly agitated even when the tonic’s e-flat sneaks up to e-natural at key moments.

It ended with an exciting sonata-form finale that turned Haydn-esque with its merry pseudo-finish, so what better encore than that last movement of the Haydn trio again?