October 19 Trio con Brio Copenhagen

Trio Con Brio

Trio con Brio Copenhagen: The best things in life are ‘three’

The outstanding piano trio dazzles the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music audience with its adrenaline-charged tempos and polished ensemble

By David Abrams

Whoever coined the phrase there’s strength in numbers may have been unaccustomed to the extraordinary world of chamber music, where a reduction in forces — especially at the hands of great composers — can possibly heighten the power and weight of the performance.

Trio con Brio Copenhagen, one of the hottest piano trios on the circuit today currently on its latest North American tour, stopped by Syracuse Saturday evening for the second concert of Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music’s 2013-14 season.  The force of three then overwhelmed the sizeable crowd in attendance with consistently outstanding playing throughout the engaging three-work program.

As its name suggests, the ensemble is based in Copenhagen — although the players first joined forces in 1999 in Vienna, where in 2002 they sprang to fame after winning the ARD-Munich International Music Competition.  Several additional first-place finishes followed, including the coveted Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson International Trio AwardTrio con Brio Copenhagen is also a family affair.

The two Korean string players (violinist Soo-Jin Hong and cellist Soo-Kyung Hong) are sisters, and pianist Jens Elvekjaer is the husband of the cellist (a fact made obvious by his absentminded walking offstage ahead of his wife following the group’s bows).  But although sisters, Soo-Jin and Soo-Kyung look nothing alike — at least while playing.

Soo-Kyung sits directly facing the audience, her cello positioned perpendicularly to the center of the auditorium as if about to perform a concerto.  Although the music stand sits unobtrusively off to her right, Soo-Kyung rarely looks at the music.  She gazes instead into the crowd, or into the eyes of the other players when beginning or ending a phrase.  Soo-Kyung’s shapely tone, while not especially large, is well-suited to chamber music, and her melodic lines maintain a sense of direction at all times.

In contrast, Soo-Jin stares fixedly at the printed music as if in a state of total absorption and sheer determination.  (Watching her play, I wondered whether she would so much as flinch if someone in the crowd were to heave a chair in her direction.)  Yet while her head remains fixed on the music, her soul roams freely within the texture of the music-making going on around her.

Soo-Jin produces a large and daring tone on her 17th century Guarneri violin.  The boldness of her sound, combined with her intrepid delivery, at times recalls that of Hilary Hahn.  At other times, however, her robust delivery appears better suited to solo concerto playing, with orchestral accompaniment, than it does chamber music.  Either way, one has to marvel at her formidable performance skills, including phenomenal technical and rhythmic skills.

I’ve always maintained that musicians, by and large, tend to look like practitioners of the instruments they play — and this is especially true of Elvekjaer.  Tall, lank, handsome and slender-fingered, this man could easily be picked out of a police lineup as “the pianist.”  (Not that I’m suggesting that playing a piano is a crime, of course.)

As a performer, Elvekjaer is fearless.  He seized the moment and headed straight into battle during the busy finger-busting sections of the music — as if prepared to perish in a blaze of glory rather than play it safe and hit all the right notes.  Elvekjaer in fact missed very few notes, even during the pernicious 16th-note passages of the opening Allegro con brio of the Beethoven Piano Trio and the tricky octave passages in the Scherzo movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio.  Beyond his formidable technical skills, Elvekjaer possesses a convincing Mozartean touch, as he frequently demonstrated during the course of the evening.

For all its impressive individual skills, Trio con Brio Copenhagen built its well-deserved reputation as a tightly knit chamber ensemble, one whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It is an exciting group to watch, in part due to the exciting tempos that at times border on the wild — which was at once apparent with the ambitious tempo of the opening movement (Allegro con brio) of Beethoven’s early Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3 that opened the program.

Published in 1795, this trio was the third and final work in Beethoven’s first publish collection of works (opus means “publish work”).  The trio reveals the assimilation of Viennese classicism that characterized the composer’s early style, although the work’s daring key structures look ahead to his middle period, for which he is better known.  This third trio remained Beethoven’s personal favorite among the set, with dramatic writing that presages his more famous works in the key of C minor: the Pathétique Sonata and Fifth Symphony.

The players handled the opening movement’s delicate turns and grace-notes with great warmth and charm, and delivered the themes of the exposition in playful, Haydnesque fashion.  I was especially impressed with the frequent octave passages between violin and cello, whose seamless blend of tone reminds us that these two are indeed siblings.  The heavily syncopated third movement Menuetto came off with a firm sense of pulse that heightened the underlying rhythmic tension, and the rapid passage-work throughout the final Prestissimo was dazzling.

Curiously, this Finale movement ends softly and gently — a rarity indeed for the irascible composer’s fast movements.  Audience members unfamiliar with the work refused to believe the piece had ended, applauding only after an uncomfortable silence had run its course.

The playful Beethoven Trio gave way to the flamboyant and action-packed Piano Trio in C Major by early 20th-century Spanish cellist-composer Gaspar Cassadó.

The Barcelona-born Cassadó, a student of the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, was known during his lifetime principally as a cellist who, like Casals’s contemporary the violinist Fritz Kreisler, also dabbled in musical composition.  Cassadó’s highly stylized music peaked in popularity during the 1920s and ‘30s but fell largely out of favor following World War II — after Casals and others accused him of being a fascist, or fascist sympathizer, during the 30 years or so he spent in Italy.  The four-movement Piano Trio was written in 1926.

As was true of the prior work on the program and the Mendelssohn Trio that followed, Trio con Brio Copenhagen delivered no talks from the stage, even though a few words about this rarely heard and
largely unfamiliar work might have been welcome by an audience eager to learn more about it.  The three players simply took a deep breath and dove headfirst into the ethnocentric Spanish music — creating a sudden splash of exotic Flamenco and Gypsy colors that sprayed the crowd clear through the last row of the auditorium.

The ear-popping opening Allegro risoluto immediately recalls the thick and splashy instrumental colors of Maurice Ravel and Manuel De Falla, couched in a busy atmosphere that could rival the opening carnival scene of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.  Add to this mix a touch of Liberace in the piano part and you pretty much get the idea. The Gypsy-ish second movement and opening of the third movement, with its touches of Flamenco guitar alternating with mournful repeated ostinatos, had me longing to hear the voice of Ricardo Montalban chanting “Cordoba!”  The sprightly dance-like part of the final movement, with its whole-tone scales and Spanish inflections brought the piece to a rousing conclusion, followed by shouts of approval from a clearly delighted crowd.

Written only two years before his death in 1847, Felix Mendelssohn’s weighty Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66 remains my personal favorite among the composer’s many outstanding chamber works.  A piece such as this can rightly come only at the end of a multi-work program, as it did here — forging a much needed anchor to the fluffy divertissement of the prior Cassadó piece and providing the meat and potatoes of the evening’s fare.

The C Minor Trio opens in dramatic fashion with all the gravitas of a major piano chamber work of a Brahms or a Dohnányi.  One could easily lose oneself in this movement (the work’s weightiest), carried away by the intense power of the profoundly nostalgic writing.  Trio con Brio Copenhagen reached deeply into its bag of tricks to deliver the depth of expression necessary to pull the notes off the page and project them into the soul of the listener.

The ensemble shaped the amiable phrases of the slow movement (Andante espressivo) — which in many ways resembles the composer’s Songs Without Words — with tender affection and warmth of expression.  The two string players were especially impressive in their delicate phrasings here, and helped guide the movement to an ethereal, whisper-quiet conclusion.

The three players took a wickedly fast tempo for the third movement Scherzo that I suspect raised my blood pressure to dangerous levels.  This über-exciting movement demands razor-sharp ensemble interplay, with no time to catch your balance if so much as a single note goes amiss.  Yet in spite of the take-no-prisoners tempo, ensemble never sounded unbalanced or rushed.

The work’s final movement is noteworthy for the incorporation of a chorale tune, Vor Deinem Thron (Before Your Throne), which Mendelssohn first weaves into the piano part before passing it along to the strings.  Like the opening movement, this weighty Allegro appassionato has the feel and substance of Brahms’s mighty chamber works.  And like Brahms’s First Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mendelssohn’sTrio begins in C Minor but ends triumphantly in C Major.  When the final glorious C Major chord sounded, the audience rose to its feet in an immediate (and thoroughly well deserved) standing ovation.

Count Saturday’s Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music program among those memorable performances that, were you to experience it even once in a season, would bring enough personal fulfillment to last clear until the following fall.

But looking at the remaining SFCM schedule, I don’t expect we’ll have to wait quite that long.

Details Box:
What: Trio con Brio Copenhagen
Who: Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse
When: October 19, 2013
Time: One hour and 45-minutes, including intermission
Next concert: Miró Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 23
Tickets:  Regular $20; senior $15; student $10 (available at door)