Communication and Tight Rapport Make Heartfelt Shostakovich Trio

United StatesUnited States Debussy, Brahms, Shostakovich: Alexander Barantschik (violin), Peter Wyrick (cello), Anton Nel (piano), presented by San Francisco Symphony, Legion of Honor (museum), San Francisco. 11.5.2014 (HS)

Debussy: Estampes
Brahms: Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67

Jascha Heifitz bequeathed his violin, a Guarnieri with the nickname “The David,” to the fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In 2002 the museums offered the violin to the San Francisco Symphony for use by the orchestra’s concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, with the proviso that he use it for a series of four concerts a year at the Legion of Honor, the museum in the Land’s End park. The chamber music series, featuring the symphony’s principal string players and the visiting pianist Anton Nel, has become a popular attraction in the museum’s lovely little oval-shaped Florence Gould Theater. The events routinely sell out four Sunday afternoons each year.

Musically, this 11-year collaboration has produced a palpable sense of communication among the musicians, who clearly relish playing with each other, whether it’s a sonata, a trio, a quartet or quintet—with or without piano. That was evident in the season’s final program, capped off by an emotional performance in the second half of the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor. Alternately gritty and ethereal, the music benefited from a clear sense that these musicians share a tight rapport, one that only a few long-standing ensembles can boast.

Peter Wyrick, the associate principal cellist (who regularly plays these concerts in place of the original member, principal cellist Michel Grebanier) started the trio beautifully. The high harmonics not only stayed true to pitch but unfolded with a sense of inevitability that turned the canon with violin and piano into a fascinating interplay of timbres. The canon unfurled with quiet resolve until Barantschik and Wyrick stealthily defined a pulse with a staccato rhythm, the piano exploring a new, broader idea. The clarity and restraint in this section were impeccable.

Nel’s rhythmic touch has a soft edge to it. Though it did not detract from the ongoing buildup of musical material, a little more staccato in the rapid-fire Scherzo would have produced more clarity. That said, his ability to turn any phrase into an entire musical conversation paid dividends in every movement, the Scherzo included. There was no lollygagging there. The monolithic chords of the third movement never got clangy, and in the finale, the energy never lost momentum.

The sense of communication was also apparent in the Brahms Trio No. 2 in C Major. As contentious as Shostakovich’s dialogue could be in his own trio, Brahms gives the musicians a more cordial palette to explore. Repeatedly, the two stringed instruments tossed their fragments of melody back and forth while the piano acted as a sort of emcee for their conversation. Could there have been more contrast between the strings and piano? Sure, but the deftness of the interplay was lovely to behold.

Nel opened the concert with Debussy’s Estampes, evoking the exotic Oriental perfume of the piano suite’s opening “Pagodes” with aplomb, emphasizing the Arabic filigrees of the Spanish music in “La soirée dans Grenade,” and jumping into the final “Jardins sous la pluie” with stormy technique.

Harvey Steiman

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