Piano Trios New and Old in Commanding Performances

United StatesUnited States  Czerny, Wernick, and Schumann: Trio Cleonice, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Wayne, Pennsylvania, 15.3.2015 (BJ)

Czerny: Piano Trio No. 2 in A major, Op. 166
Wernick: Piano Trio No. 2, The Traits of Messina
Schumann: Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, Op. 80


A name and a subtitle, at this presentation in the Tri-County Concerts Emerging Artists Series, call for some explanation. The youthful and gifted Trio Cleonice takes its name from a bistro in Ellsworth, Maine, that has been a favorite gathering place for its members since they met in nearby Blue Hill, at the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival and School.

No less charmingly, the subtitle of Richard Wernick’s Piano Trio No. 2—not, you notice, The Straits but The Traits of Messina—has an entirely personal reference. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s wife, Beatrice, is of Sicilian descent, and her maiden name was Messina. The Piano Trio No. 2 is based on the motif B-E-A, and may be described as an affectionate portrait of the lady in question.

The work was receiving its Pennsylvania premiere on this occasion. It was written three years ago for the Cleonice Trio, which has now played it some 25 times since giving the world premiere in Boston two years ago. That certainly helps to account for the evident confidence and impressive mastery of the performance, which unerringly realized the “traits,” by turns (to cite the movement headings) “Vivid; Effulgent,” “Sometimes sentimental; somewhat unpredictable,” and “Spirited; Energetic,” that the composer has by now had time to discern in the woman who became Bea Wernick in 1956. Appropriately, the work is distinctly more approachable in style than some of his earlier works, often wittily light in texture, and closer to traditional tonal methods in its harmonic and melodic idiom. It makes both sense and entertaining listening.

The members of the Trio Cleonice, violinist Ari Isaacman-Beck, cellist Gwen Krosnick, and pianist Emely Phelps, had already demonstrated their quality in the searching and sensitive performance of Carl Czerny’s Piano Trio No. 2 that opened the program. Given its opus number, 166, this must be ranked an early work in Czerny’s output, which eventually reached to 861 numbered compositions. The first movement is propelled for long stretches by groups of repeated accompanimental eighth-notes, and in contrast with the way such writing can chug-chug tediously along in some performances, it was impressive to hear how much light and shade, and how much dynamic differentiation, the players brought to the music.

The work is not a masterpiece. In both the opening and closing Allegros, Czerny clearly panicked when he realized he would soon have to bring the movement to a close, and spent altogether too much time noodling around in slower tempo while he considered how to manage that. But there is some agreeable music along the way, including a sumptuous second theme in the first movement and a warmly expressive slow movement, and it was in any case instructive to have the rare chance of hearing what one of Beethoven’s most devoted pupils could achieve as a composer on his own account.

The Schumann Trio No. 2, which concluded the program, is scarcely more familiar than the two pieces that had preceded it. Again, this is not one of its composer’s greatest achievements, but it still dwarfs the work of the lesser genius Czerny. This pleasantly romantic piece gave the three members of the Cleonice Trio ample opportunity to display the contrasting but well coordinated personal characters of their musical styles.

Isaacman-Beck sounded perhaps the most analytical and fine-spun of the three, and Krosnick (daughter of the famous Juilliard Quartet cellist Joel) the most expansive. Regarding pianist Phelps I would rather wait for another occasion before trying to characterize her playing: it was undoubtedly expert and often brilliant, but the church’s distinctly unhelpful acoustics made it impossible to judge the quality of her sound with any confidence. However that may be, it is with full confidence that I would rank the Cleonice, in its eighth year together, among the most accomplished piano trios now before the public.

Bernard Jacobson

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