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Concert Review-Trio Con Brio Copenhagen Lived Up To Its Carefully Selected Name



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Concert Review—

Trio Con Brio Copenhagen Lived Up To Its Carefully Selected Name

By Wendy Wipprecht

What’s in a name? When an ensemble choose its name, it is trying to describe itself. One group will name itself after a city or country (St Petersburg, Manhattan), another will take a name from Greek or Roman mythology in an attempt to acquire the powers of the god or hero in question (Orpheus, Dedalus), and still another name itself after its aspiration (Beaux Arts, Pro Arte). What do we make of Trio Con Brio Copenhagen, then? It combines a place name with a goal: to play con brio is to play with vigor, animation, and spirit. But then there is that internal rhyme of “trio” and “brio,” suggesting the world of light verse, of Gilbert and Sullivan, of puns good and bad, of fun with language, of youthful insouciance.

The trio must also delight in surprise. With Copenhagen in its name, it has set up the expectation that its members will be Danish or at least Scandinavian. The concertgoer who opens the program soon learns that the only Danish member of the group is the pianist, Jens Elvekjaer; the string players are Korean sisters, Soo-Jin Hong (violin) and Soo-Kyung Hong (cello).

But the most important thing about an ensemble is what is sounds like. Those who attended Trio Con Brio Copenhagen’s concert last Sunday at Edmond Town Hall, the second of this season’s five-concert series presented by Newtown Friends of Music, were treated to a program that was both varied and demanding.

The concert began with Haydn’s Trio in G major, Hoboken XV:25, “Gypsy Rondo.” In the first two movements, where piano predominates, it was inevitable that Jens Elvekjaer’s remarkable playing stood out. But Soo-Jin Hong’s violin parts were revelatory, too. Both were able to play with speed, sensitivity, dynamic variation, and energy.

A mediocre Haydn performance is boring; an extraordinary one reminds you why Haydn is a musician’s musician, and also leaves you wondering why you never noticed before how soulful his music can be.

The third movement, the “Gypsy Rondo” section, is a high-speed tour de force of offbeat accents, rhythmic jokes, and sudden changes. It’s here that the three instruments are given more equal voices, and the cellist can come into her own. The Gypsy rondo is, as it was then, a show-stopper, demanding a different kind of playing. Trio Con Brio played with all the frenzy and fire the rondo called for.

You couldn’t get much farther away from the world of Haydn’s trio (London, 1795, a period of great success for the composer) than that of Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (the Soviet Union, 1944, just after Stalingrad). The same is true of the pieces themselves.

Nothing about the Shostakovich trio is predictable or comfortable. It promises order with its tradition four-movement structure, and then dispels that expectation immediately when the piece opens with a cello solo high in the instruments treble range that is best described as eerie or ghostly. After the other instruments have entered, in canon, the cello is playing higher notes than either the violin or the piano. The cello also establishes a rhythmic motif that will return many times during this movement, including at its close. Then the ghostly mood shifts and the music becomes more animated for a while, returning at the end of the movement to its original spare, ghostly sound.

The second movement, Allegro non troppo, is a brief, high-spirited galop. During this dance, each of the instruments tries to dominate. The movement is full of energy and joie de vivre, and so is the playing of Trio Con Brio. The next movement, Largo, is in the form of another dance, a slow and solemn passacaglia. The piano plays a series of slow, long-held chords, and as the chords soften, the violin comes in, playing a beautiful, sad melody that is then taken up by the cello.

The last movement, Allegretto, begins with a sprightly, simple dance that most people will recognize as Jewish, whether their acquaintance with this traditional music comes from Fiddler on the Roof or an enduring love of Klezmer. Each instrument gets a chance to play the melody, and then Shostakovich goes to work on it, changing the accompaniment so that the simple dance turns aggressive, grim, or tragicomic. Then the cello breaks out in a passionate lament, and nothing about the movements is ever simple or naïve again. The movement grows louder and faster and more intense. The dance tune returns, this time in the deep bass of the piano, and now it has becomes a danse macabre. Shostakovich then returns to the opening of the Largo, and the piece ends with the strings playing in that eerie or ghostly style; the piano provides the last three notes in quiet chords.

The second half of the concert was given over to a single work, Bedrich Smetana’s Trio in G minor, op. 15. Smetana wrote only a handful of chamber works, all of them intensely autobiographical, which suits the intimate nature of chamber music. His two string quartets narrate his life story, and this trio is an elegy for his daughter Bedriska, who died of whooping cough before her fifth birthday.

Smetana was devastated by the death of his favorite, a child with whom he clearly identified, and this trio is at once her memorial and a father’s attempt to come to terms with his grief. It was written in the two months after her death, and premiered with Smetana at the piano in December 1855.

The first movement, Moderato assai, is full of passionate grief and protest. It is the music of high romanticism, and Lizst can be heard throughout. (Smetana, a fine pianist, had gained fame playing Lizst, and Lizst encouraged Smetana in his composing career.) This section also contains a beautiful piano cadenza. Smetana departs from the usual trio format, in that the second movement is not a slow one, but is marked Allegro ma non agitato, with two sub-sections (Alternativo I and II) that are an introspective contrast.

The third movement, in free rondo form, has as its principal theme a Czech folk song, “As I was sowing millet,” that was associated with the rebellion of the 1840s. (Smetana also uses this theme in two other works.) The movement goes through a bewildering number of emotions, ending with a somber funeral march and a return to the movement’s principal themes. It ends in a major key, which indicates a passage from sorrow to acceptance, or to a resolution of some kind.

The Shostakovich and Smetana trios require much from those who perform them, and in every way Trio Con Brio Copenhagen was up to the task, combining very emotional playing with technical skill. The trio also has an intense ensemble connection that could often be observed but was felt at all times. When the Shostakovich ended, there was a long, awe-filled silence before the audience burst into applause. The trio’s performance of the Smetana, a long and very passionate work, sparked a standing ovation at concert’s end.

Dazzling playing of another kind was displayed in the encore, the Scherzo from one of Mendelssohn’s piano trios. It had the all speed and delicacy and sprightliness that anyone could ask for, and it was the perfect way to send a happy audience out into the evening.

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