Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio

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By Scott MacClelland

BIRTHDAYS APLENTY! In the middle of its 50th season, Chamber Music Monterey Bay played host to the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, currently celebrating its 40th season, which makes it now the most venerable American ensemble in service to some of the greatest chamber music ever composed since a guy named Beethoven rewrote the rules of the game. (And, by the way, this year also marks the 300th anniversary of the Stradivari cello now in the sensitive hands of Sharon Robinson.)

So polished these musicians have become that they replaced most of the grit in the great Trio in E Minor of 1944 by Shostakovich with gloss. It’s a harrowing piece, as deeply felt in its personal circumspection as in its terrifying picture of Jewish fatalistic rage in the finale. Indeed, Shostakovich went to that edge himself, often cautiously but in this case emphatically, assailing power with truth. But the KLR Trio contained these qualities in a performance that should have been less mannered and far more gripping. Otherwise, one could scarcely fault the playing itself. (I had looked forward at delving deeply into the formal mastery and substance of the piece, but maybe another time.)

Fortunately sanguinity filled Brahms’ Trio in B, Op 8, an early work that gushes with unforgettable melodies by the cheerful 20-year-old, though revised substantially and more concisely when he was a seasoned 59 years of age. (The composer died at age 64 in 1897.) But for all the disappointments in his life, principally over unrequited loves, he revisited his youth with apparent pleasure, preserving all of his youthful ardor.

One measure of Brahms’ huge talent is his way of recycling thoughts and notions from his mentor, Robert Schumann. Brahms could as easily have gone his way without continually finding throw-away bits in Schumann and then making hay from them. But a hallmark of great art is economy of means, something that Brahms, like Beethoven before him, pursued consciously. Curiously, in his concertos, he ran into problems that he could not gracefully solve, witness the final moments of the Violin Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto and first movement of the Double Concerto. But when it comes to chamber music, Brahms stands head and shoulders above all of his contemporaries. Some may quibble over those works with piano, his own instrument, which, as here, tend to bully the other instruments. But Jaime Laredo and Robinson had no trouble holding their own.

(I take issue with program annotator Kai Christiansen’s description of the late Brahms chamber works for clarinet as “a final small set of compositions.” The two sonatas may not be as ambitious as the Clarinet Trio, but certainly the 40-minute Clarinet Quintet is right up there with the composer’s other ‘big boys’ in the chamber genre.)

The program opened with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s new Pas de Trois (2016) a commission shared by five chamber music presenters, in Washington DC, Cincinnati, Annandale-on-Hudson, La Jolla and Carmel-based Chamber Music Monterey Bay. Lasting ten minutes in performance, Joseph Kalichstein described it as an “amuse bouche,” a bite-sized morsel as indeed it was. The composer, who has written for the KLR Trio on other occasions, provided a concise and somewhat more detailed description: “I decided to model this shorter work on the ballet tradition of Pas de Trois. In the 1st movement (Entrée) the trio bounds onto the stage [they didn’t in Carmel] and engages in various interactions. The 2nd movement (Variata e Coda) gives each of the three a solo turn, followed by an ensemble conclusion.” The piece has a light, jazzy feel. The ‘ensemble conclusion’ recalled the opening. Overall, it was bright and clear.

Enthusiastic applause aroused an encore, Gershwin’s Summertime as if to warm up an audience departing into a chilly night.

(Photo by Fred Collins)