Striking sensitivity and intelligence in Brahms and Shostakovich from Z.E.N. Trio in Vancouver

CanadaCanada Schubert, Brahms, Shostakovich: Z.E.N. Trio (Esther Yoo [violin], Narek Hakhnazaryan [cello], Zhang Zuo [piano]), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 20.10.2019. (GN)

Z.E.N. Trio © Clive Barda

Schubert – Notturno in E-flat major Op.148 D.897

Brahms – Piano Trio No.1 in B-flat major Op.8 (revised version)

Shostakovich – Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op.67

Given the number of young piano trios and string quartets that spring up these days, it was natural to have some trepidation about the Z.E.N. Trio, who came together as BBC New Generation artists in 2015 and recorded their first CD for Deutsche Grammophon within only a year. Vancouver had already seen these exceptional artists on their own and recognized their quality – but might it not take a little more time for the group to achieve full synergy? Yet the early praise for this ensemble is completely warranted: they play gorgeously, really think with one mind and provide readings of striking thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Pianist Zhang Zuo is always bringing home structural contrasts and changes in mood through adventurous accents and varied dynamics. Violinist Esther Yoo and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan listen to each other intently, and the former’s resilience of line superbly plays off the latter’s plasticity and tenderness.

These performances of Schubert, Brahms and Shostakovich were special, demonstrating a natural absorption of the composers’ emotional worlds and revealing obvious thought in achieving balance and continuity of line in each work. Since it is always a source of intrigue, the trio’s name is based on the initials of the member’s first names and, to add even more colour, Zhang Zuo plays the piano barefoot.

Schubert’s brief Notturno can be difficult to bring off: if played with full romantic weight, its big tune may wear out its welcome, and the work can seem rather sentimental and repetitious. The solution here was perfect. The Z.E.N. Trio started very softly – as if in a dream – and then proceeded with the true improvisatory spirit of a Schubert ‘fantasy’. There were moments of energy and thrust, but the important thing was that the recurring dominant theme was taken quickly and lightly, never belaboured, so there was no overbearing feeling. Dynamic control was distinguished throughout, and the sense of longing in the piece was placed in a personal and intimate context. At points, Zhang Zuo wove almost gossamer textures.

The Brahms Trio No.1 was equally satisfying. It moved forward with a lovely autumnal glow, both violin and cello fully invested in the composer’s melancholy and long lyrical lines, while the piano’s slightly angular phrasing added an interesting complexity. The feeling was quintessentially Brahmsian, naturally expressive and always opening out a broad interpretative space for the artists to develop their dialogue. I enjoyed the patience in this exposition and the refined beauty and feeling which flowed from each voice. Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan’s response to the lyricism was very special, but the tonal integration between him and Yoo was equally noteworthy. Zuo was adventurous in the way she selectively added staccato emphasis and rubato to her phrases and spontaneous weight to the climaxes. At speeds slightly below the marked allegro, and with the exposition repeat included, the opening movement turned out to be a long journey indeed. Except for a few moments towards the end where the ensemble seemed slightly uncoordinated and Zuo’s piano got a little splashy, and a few other instances of intonational insecurity, it was a concentrated and rewarding experience. The transitions always seemed naturally motivated, and there was balance and cohesion throughout.

The Scherzo was superbly articulated though it might have been slightly too robust and angular for some tastes (it could have been more will-o’-wisp), but the radiant Adagio brought all the feeling back. Yoo and Hakhnazaryan entered the shadows with complete involvement, often choosing deliberate tempos to establish a consuming stillness. The Finale completed the story admirably, again with fine detailing and a keen rhythmic sense, adding just the right amount of passion at the end.

I liked the performance of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio most of all. Its narrative cohesion was really stunning, especially from the elemental piano chords of the passacaglia to their quiet return at the end. This work receives a lot of demonstrative performances that aim to unearth all the visceral dimensions of the composer’s burning pain and mental torment under Soviet rule. The Tetzlaff Trio gave us one which was pretty all-out just last year. But that is not the way of the Z.E.N.; they seem to explore a more inward consternation and, perhaps, the encroaching numbness that Shostakovich felt. It’s not to say they play down the manic, out-of-control moments; they simply make the work speak more through its inner voice and the careful balancing of structural elements than through outward cinematics.

The technically-demanding opening movement, with all the unearthly high notes for the cello, was beautifully done, withdrawn in fabric but always searching in its paleness. The dance movement had great unity and energy, even if the Z.E.N. did not project the sliding leaps of the strings with as much drama as some groups. It was after the imposing piano chords, where the bizarre little march theme can be hammered home so insistently, that the differences became clear: Zuo hit hard with the first statement, then immediately backed off. It was the sheer balance and natural sense of motion that the group achieved throughout the whirling extremes of this klezmer fantasy – full of feeling but avoiding histrionics – that made the music’s structural ingenuity and emotional reach stand out so clearly. There was genuine catharsis when the piano declamation returned in softer form, perfectly ending the story.

I can think of few finer young piano trios. The Z.E.N. has remarkable sensitivity and intelligence for an ensemble of this age, and the artists collaborate so knowingly while maintaining their own personal voices. Given the demands on each member as an international soloist, let’s hope the group keeps together.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on