Ensemble soars with intense program

Review: Vienna Piano Trio's presentation is marked by incisive, yet highly expressive, performance.

March 06, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Although some classical music fans might contest the point vehemently, there's an unbroken line linking the symmetrical beauty of Haydn, the robust romanticism of Schumann and Brahms, and the dissonant complexities of Anton Webern. The proof was there for anyone to hear at Sunday's performance by the Vienna Piano Trio.

The ensemble, which has all the technical facility and expressive incisiveness to become the Beaux Arts Trio of the 21st century, put together a program for the Shriver Hall Concert Series that was unified by a consistently high level of expressive intensity. Even in the opening, charm-filled Haydn trio, there was a richness of tone from violinist Wolfgang Redik, cellist Christian Poltera and pianist Stefan Mendl; lyrical power was simmering just beneath the score's classical restraint.

That power emerged again in riveting fashion when the players explored early examples of Webern's style. His expressionistic "Three Little Pieces" for cello and piano from 1914 condense a novel's worth of characters and emotions into a few seconds, a few wisps of melody, a few atonal chords. The silences between bursts of music speak volumes, too.

This is heady stuff.

Although not as dense as the 12-tone style Webern would embrace later, these pieces still sound incredibly modern. But as the Vienna Piano Trio affirmed, only the sounds themselves are unusual; the expressive intent behind them is no different from that behind notes composed by Schubert or Mahler.

Webern wasn't out to destroy traditional rules of music, but to free the ear from conventional expectations, to help us hear how much more there is to life than a C major chord. When approached with the affection and tonal warmth that Poltera and Mendl offered, these "Three Little Pieces" make three very large, provocative statements.

The rewards continued when Redik and Mendl turned the clock back to the "Four Pieces" for violin and piano from 1910. Here, thematic lines are a little longer, the harmonies a little more tonal. The feeling of stretching toward a brave new sound world is still very much present, though, and was brilliantly conveyed.

In yet another reverse motion, Poltera and Mendl segued neatly into the post-romantic "Two Pieces" from 1899, when Webern's personality - he was only a teen-ager - was hardly recognizable. The violinist's sensuous tone and the pianist's beautifully shaded partnering tapped the potential in these lyrical studies.

The source of Webern's romantic roots became apparent in the next piece: a taut, passionate, incisive account of Brahms' Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101, dating from just 13 years earlier.

The great thing about this music history lesson was how unacademically, how subtly it was rendered. Hearing Haydn juxtaposed with Webern, then Webern juxtaposed with Brahms, made it impossible to take any of them for granted. Suddenly, each work sounded different, fresh.

After intermission, the ensemble turned to Schumann's quirky D minor Trio, and it, too, took on a new perspective. Especially in the bleak moments of the second movement and the strange, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night interruptions in the finale, Schumann seemed somehow as forward-looking as Webern. A pretty neat trick - and one more demonstration of the Vienna Piano Trio's uncanny abilities.

Organ concerto premieres

EPA pipe organ is such a mighty sound machine in its own right that it doesn't really need an orchestra, but there's always room for an imaginative organ concerto. Mark Lanz Weiser has written one.

Titled "Passages," it was given an impressive world premiere Sunday by organist Donald Sutherland and the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra in Bethesda's acoustically splendid Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church.

Weiser brings a basically tonal, but nicely spicy style to the concerto. Cast in three traditionally structured movements, the work has a logical progression and a vivid sense of dramatic motion.

The opening is enticing - a rocking accompaniment pattern performed by the orchestra while expectant phrases emerge from the highest register of the organ. The thick chords and pounding drive of the finale engage the ear, as does the frequent appearance of a trumpet sailing above the fray.

Sutherland, coordinator of the organ faculty at the Peabody Conservatory, played the solo part with considerable poise, drawing a wide palette of colors from the instrument. The top-notch orchestra, drawn principally from the National Symphony, was generally in strong, vivid form.

Founding conductor Sylvia Alimena also led the ensemble in a vibrant account of Stravinsky's "Dances Concertantes" and coaxed from the strings a lush, animated performance of Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro."

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