The Eroica Trio’s seductive Town Hall concert


Music by Lalo, Villa-Lobos, Schoenfield and Mendelssohn

Erika Nikrenz (piano) / Suzie Park (violin) / Sara Sant’Ambrogio (‘cello)

Wellington Town Hall,

Tuesday 24th March

Described in a preview to the group’s recent Wellington concert as “three Sassy women who put the sex back into symphony”, the Eroica Trio, here in New Zealand on its second tour, charmed a Town Hall audience with its familiar combination of visual glamour and a winning stage presence, playing a sprightly, easy-on-the-ear programme of music by Lalo, Villa-Lobos, Paul Schoenfield and Mendelssohn. I thought the three musicians had to work quite hard to sufficiently project this largely affable, and for the listener, relatively undemanding programme of music throughout the venue’s voluminous spaces, a feat that to their credit they managed to achieve by beautifully-tailored teamwork and impressively sustained concentration upon the task. In none of these works were those grand, impassioned gestures that one finds in the trios of Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak or Shostakovich, statements whose melodies, accents and rhythms leap from the instruments and pin back audiences’ ears, making for unforgettable listening experiences – even the D minor storms and stresses of the finale of Mendelssohn’s work didn’t explore much outside the realm of a drawing-room sensibility.

The concert began with Edouard Lalo’s C minor Trio, an early work (1850), and one of three written for this instrumental combination by the composer. This was a work that, perhaps unfairly, considering its place in the composer’s output, reinforced my opinion of Lalo’s music in general – pleasant, well-crafted stuff, designed to charm and entertain an audience without ruffling anybody’s sense of well-being or delving into recesses suggesting disturbances below the surface. When one turns to the music of Lalo’s almost exact contemporary, Cesar Franck, one is in a diametrically different sound-world of expressive depth of feeling, joyful, passionate and mystical. However, to be fair one would need to hear more of Lalo’s work in this genre, such as the Third, and much later (1880) Piano Trio, before indulging in such grandiloquent comparative judgements! The Eroica brought out the music’s charm and craftsmanship with some beautifully dove-tailed teamwork set against many a beguiling solo, with the ‘cello invariably given the thematic ‘lead-in’ to each movement by the composer.

The Villa-Lobos work is probably better-known as a piece for eight ‘cellos and soprano voice, though it’s been arranged for many an instrumental combination over the years. The composer adored the music of Bach, and paid homage to that great genius by writing nine pieces entitled Bachianas Brasilieras, of which the work played this evening was the fifth. I thought the arrangement (by Brazilian composer Raimundo Penaforte) worked better and better as the piece progressed, particularly the ‘cello’s contributions, and with beautifully expressive work from the strings at the piece’s end.

Café Music was described somewhat disarmingly by its composer, American-born Paul Schoenfield, as “high-class dinner music…which might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall”. This performance began with a roar and continued with a swing, with plenty of leaning-into and -away-from beats, slurring of notes for expressive effect and high-kicking, hip-swinging momentum – music marked by energetic drive throughout, though one could imagine that more variation in tempo would characterise different episodes of the music more tellingly, such as with the characterful and languid violin solo just before the end of the movement.

A ‘bluesy’ piano solo at the next movement’s beginning invited a similarly sultry response from the strings, which didn’t quite happen – I could imagine the response being several shades ‘dirtier’ than the sweet, relative innocence of Suzie Park’s violin playing, though her duetting with ‘cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio at the reprise of the movement’s ‘big tune’ was lovely, heartfelt stuff. The finale was little short of a full-frontal assault, with the instruments scrubbed, yanked, stretched and twisted, made to sound at their extremes, and the piano scampering along keystone-cops style, occasionally calling the strings to attention before dashing headlong into another orgy of wild exhilaration, everybody hugely enjoying themselves, listeners included!

Mendelssohn’s D Minor Piano Trio promised much, with markings such as the first movement’s Molto allegro ed agitato and the finale’s allegro assai appassionato suggesting something of the dynamism and sharply-etched focus of parts of the composer’s symphonies. Apart from a somewhat rigidly-phrased first rhetorical climax which needed a touch more amplitude to properly tell, the players realised the movement’s ebb and flow skilfully, rescuing the second subject’s initial melodic sentimentality with a finely-judged surge of burgeoning activity. Some of Mendelssohn’s themes, perhaps due to the composer’s amazing technical facility, seem too easily wrought, this aforementioned second subject being a particularly smug example until the dramatic coda, where the theme is spiked with a minor strain, changing its character to one of great agitation.

A sensitive treatment of the ‘song without words’ ambience of the slow movement was followed by a scherzo in the composer’s distinctive tradition, elfin scamperings and insistent patternings keeping the players instruments whispering, bubbling, chattering and occasionally trumpeting (to spontaneous applause from the audience at the end). The finale brought some Sturm und Drang to bear on the proceedings, even if the demons weren’t quite of the disturbing order of, for example, Schumann’s. The music’s drive through various agitations towards the work’s G Major resolution brought out the evening’s best playing from the Trio, committed and thrustful on all fronts. And if I would have rather they’d left the evening’s music-making at that, instead of giving us a somewhat syrupy trio arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ ubiquitous Le Cygne as an encore, it was a view that wasn’t shared by the audience. Anyway, by now the unfortunate bird ought to be well used to such treatment – what price fame!

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