Orion Trio regales Whangarei with Schubert, Brahms – and a possibly unique encore

New ZealandNew Zealand Schubert, Brahms: Orion Piano Trio (Marko Pop Ristov [violin], Marco Ariani [cello], Flavio Villani [piano]). Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand. 15.10.2022. (PSe)

Schubert – Piano Trio No.2 in E flat, Op.100

Brahms – Piano Trio No.1 in B, Op.8

This recital, the last of Whangarei Music Society’s 2022 season, was part of a New Zealand tour supported, not by the ever-dependable Chamber Music NZ but by the Italian Embassy in NZ. The Orion Piano Trio’s name comes courtesy of a bit of mildly lateral thinking. Cellist Marco Ariani is Italian, pianist Flavio Villani is an Italian-born NZ citizen and violinist Marko Pop Ristov is a Macedonian who has been working in NZ since 2013. As a trio they thus relate strongly to both Europe and NZ. On the other hand, looking laterally heavenwards, we can see that some constellations are visible from both Europe and NZ; the most prominent and easily recognisable of these is Orion, which they see as symbolic of their antipodean alliance. Potted ‘bios’ of the players themselves can be seen here.

I am a mite puzzled by the programme notes, which say that ‘2022 marks the birthday anniversaries [sic] of . . . Schubert and Brahms’. To be fair, any year is a ‘birthday anniversary’ of everyone who has ever been born before that year. Does anything make 2022 special? Well, 2022 sees Schubert’s 225th birthday and Brahms’s 189th. These are hardly in ‘centennial’ territory, are they? Just to confuse matters, the WMS notice was a bit more explicit: ‘. . . the 200th birthday of Brahms [misspelt as ‘Bach’] and Schubert,’ which makes no sense at all. Even in commemorative mode, the numbers are 194 and 125. So, by the look of it, the only way to make anything of this is, ‘the “2¼ centenary” of Schubert’s birth and the “1¼ centenary” of Brahms’s death.’ Have I missed something?

Fortunately, we don’t need any excuses for celebrating these two great composers, whose combined lives nigh-on spanned the entire Romantic era, and whose music – as represented here by two magnificent piano trios – provides endless opportunities for comparative consideration. Of course, this last is unlikely if you succumb to the music’s endless funds of sensual pleasure, a risk rendered a virtual certainty by the siren sounds of the Orion Trio.

‘Siren’? Oh, yes. In a chamber-music world increasingly focussed on the ‘macho’, no-holds-barred approach, the Orion Trio stands out as disarmingly modest; let us hope that this will continue to be so. These players indulge in neither histrionic gestures (extravagant swaying and swooning are definitely off the menu) nor high-octane interpretations. Their moderation is inherent in their very sound: warm and velvety; the violin svelte and the cello giving every audible impression that it has real gut strings (the piano belonged to the venue, but being warm-toned, it fitted in very nicely). To match their warmth they play with evident affection, yet there is no lack of clarity of ensemble, or pinpoint accuracy of articulation, or, for that matter, variety of attack and dramatic awareness.

The Schubert, for instance, set off with a jaunty air, engendered by sprightly playing, fluidly expressive in the lyrical passages, otherwise appositely accented; in vividly drawing the musical landscape they drew the listener in. Their way with the succeeding Andante con moto was wonderfully graphic. The piano’s persistent, halting rhythm seemed almost a baleful precursor of the rhythmic figure in the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony; the soulful cello theme evolved as a lyric drama blossoming from infertile soil. The Orion kept the lid on it, thereby heightening the feeling of brewing unrest, so that when it did boil over it fairly scalded – though through subtler means than mere brute power of execution.

After that pressure-cooker of a movement, their Scherzo, spry, lilting and skittish, came like a breath of fresh air! Enlivened by some neat little tenuti, this captivating stream of invention was all the better for being unhurried! Seemingly picking up where the Scherzo left off, the finale began purposefully, gradually winding up to a ‘virtuosic’ pitch, notes flying everywhere. I particularly liked their way with those little hiatuses where the music slowed then paused, as if checking its route-map, before picking up – or shooting off – through even finer scenery; often sparkling, increasingly urgent, they pressed the music onward to its joyous goal.

Lest the unwary (such as I) should imagine the Brahms Op.8 to be a work of his youth, and consequently be confused by the distinct impression of maturity engendered by the music itself, the programme notes pointed out that the middle-aged Brahms had seized an opportunity for wholesale revision. Thank you for that. From a darkly brooding start, the first movement expanded bountifully, its lyricism developing into a choppier ride, heavily accented, punchy, bursting with Brahmsian energy. This was weightier, more rounded than the Schubert, but by no means earthbound! Placed second, the Scherzo, leaning a little towards the polonaise, struck me almost as ‘horse-riding’ music. The Orion Trio made it all feel very jolly, its Beethovenian touches like sly winks, and almost defying the music’s contrapuntal nature – and wound it down respectfully to bow in the Adagio.

Here the meandering phrases sounded curiously detached, although becoming more flowing for a while. Overall, the music sounded very sparse and hesitant (possibly offering ideas to Bruckner?), lending the numb feeling of a stunned near silence. Orion Trio opened the finale somewhat like a spectral waltz, which gradually coalesced, growing more intensely active – until, suddenly, it became more like a Hungarian Dance (or even a Gopak!). What the programme note described as ‘moments of calm’ sounded to me more like ‘pauses for concern’, but ultimately the affirmative won the day in a welter of exhilaratingly expansive playing.

The applause over, the audience remained firmly seated, in anticipation of something more. Billed as the middle item was Kiwi composer Claire Cowan’s Subtle Dances; was this being kept as an encore? The players returned – alas, empty handed. Oh, we got an encore alright: in the possibly unprecedented form of an apology: they had omitted to bring the music.

Late that night, the Trio’s fabulous music-making still reverberating in the back of my mind, I stepped out onto the decking. This faced eastwards; and above the trees and rooftops, for the first time this Spring, I saw Orion rising! Is there such a thing as an omen after the event?

Paul Serotsky

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