Tautological Trinity Trio’s Tasty Treat!

New ZealandNew Zealand Beethoven, Farr, Dvořák: Trinity Trio – Stella Kim (violin), Sally Kim (cello), Tina Kim (piano). The Old Library Arts Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand. 4.8.2016. (PSe)

Beethoven – Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1 No. 3

Gareth Farr – Piano Trio “Ahi”

Dvořák – Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op.90 “Dumky”

Nowadays in NZ, classical music is positively thriving. Granted, in Whangarei, unless there’s the attraction of a “stellar name”, audience numbers for classical music hardly shout “thriving” at you. But, in performing terms, in terms of sheer quality we enjoy an embarrassment of riches. To cite just one significant example, just look at Whangarei Music Society, which organises chamber music recitals, mostly but not exclusively fed through that admirable enterprise, Chamber Music NZ. In my nine years here, as witness my numerous S&H reviews, there’s been an unbroken procession of truly top-notch musicians, many of them young but all as keen as mustard. Quite honestly, if I considered myself a critic rather than a reviewer, I’d find it very depressing.

Tonight’s offering signally failed to interrupt the aforementioned procession. You may recall that, soon after it burst on the scene, the famous Bekova Trio was dubbed “a unique ensemble”. That may have been true at the time, probably hasn’t remained true, and certainly isn’t true now. For, like the Bekovas, the members of the tautological Trinity Trio are sisters: Stella (violin), Sally (cello) and Tina Kim (piano), two of whom are still at Auckland University. Nevertheless, in the three years since its inception (2013), the trio has been steadily gaining international repute, notably in the UK, Thailand, France, Germany, Austria and Italy.

That means they must be superb players, right? Yes, indeed they are, but, since pristine technique is nowadays almost a basic job requirement, mustn’t there also be something above and beyond that? On tonight’s showing, I’d suggest that they possess in abundance two related talents. Firstly, there’s sympathy, a unanimity of thought and feeling within the ensemble. Of course, it’d be silly to claim that Trinity are unique in this, but between siblings such a rapport tends to develop naturally, and is never quite matched by those who have to “manufacture” it from scratch. Secondly – and especially – there’s empathy, an ability to use the musical score as a window into the composer’s soul.

Does that all seem a bit airy-fairy? Well, consider the opening item, Beethoven’s Piano Trio, Op. 1 No. 3. Some treat it as a (slightly wayward) child of Haydn’s classicism, some highlight (or even double-underline) Beethoven’s rebellious streak – and most lean one way or the other. The Kims held these conflicting elements in a precarious balance, and thereby drew a convincing picture of a savage lion, not yet on the rampage but shaking his cage bars – which is (probably) much nearer the “truth” of the matter, and something that generated a distinctive frisson.

The first movement found the trio immediately alive to the logical progression, having an almost telepathic togetherness that raised hair at Beethoven’s subito forte surprises, yet accommodated these sudden shakes of those cage bars without (quite) disrupting the music’s overall cohesiveness. Similarly, the initial classical poise of their Andante yielded to a limpidly articulated quick variation, fizzing just enough to tempt one’s eyebrow to lift a little; and, towards the end, Trinity “leant” on that suspenseful dissonance just hard enough to lift one’s eyebrow a little more.

This nicely paved the way for the moderate outrageousness of Beethoven’s bar-rattling “Minuetto”, whose jagged rhythms were punched home, not so much ferociously as with a lovely feeling for the music’s robust “dancing” quality. This progression palpably penetrated into the finale, which offers the work’s greatest threat to the cage bars. Although Trinity’s basic tempo sounded a tad shy of the marked prestissimo, it was nevertheless strong, impetuous and modestly pugnacious, and ended on a note of singularly well-judged wistfulness.

By way of contrast, the movements of Gareth Farr’s Ahi (“fire”) sounded as though they came from completely different planets: the first – one anguished upheaval apart – a lullaby openly redolent of Fauré, the second a fulminating pile-driver, the brief third a sigh of loneliness (or perhaps relief?), and the fourth a frolicsome fusion of gamelan-like elements (that is, minus gamelan’s characteristic “layering” of tempi) spiced with bursts of burning brimstone. Having never heard it before, I can say only that Trinity made me feel that they had  characterised each movement with sensitivity (or brutality, as appropriate), and left me decidedly desirous of hearing this piece all over again.

The programme’s plum was Dvořák’s Piano Trio, Op.90 “Dumky” (maybe here I should just mention that a “dumka” is a simple folk-song form, alternating a sorrowful lyric verse with a rumbustious dancing refrain). I was both thrilled and astonished to hear my favourite Dvořák chamber work played, not merely superlatively but as to the manner born – to my mind, a clear case of extraordinary empathy with the elusive Czech idiom.

Stravinsky famously said that there should be no interpreters of his music, only executants, because everything they need to know is precisely marked. I rather doubt this, because – specifically to test his claim – I once examined the markings (as opposed to the notes) in the first dozen or so bars of The Rite of Spring. I ended up with far more questions than answers. The fact is, really, that composers simply cannot fully specify every nuance (for a start, there wouldn’t be enough room on the page!). And, more than any amount of intensely lyrical expression and infectious dancing (and there was plenty of that!), for me it was the Kim sisters’ utterly convincing realisation of Dvořák’s “unwritten” nuances that set this performance apart.

There was more. In successive movements, the artful Dvořák progressively blurs the formal boundaries and confuses the contents of the initially simple “ABAB” form into something more and more “developmental”. Trinity elucidated this so subtly that I started by alternately weeping and dancing, ended up not knowing whether to weep or dance, and was not at all sure when the one became the other. It was just glorious!

And yet more, in the form of an encore! Playing with bags of pizazz, Trinity trotted out an item borrowed from their other touring programme, Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music, a toe-tapping take on a well-known 1920s jazz style. They ended their programme – as they had ended each item – wreathed in sunny smiles. And well they might.

Paul Serotsky

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