Montrose Trio

 By Scott MacClelland

TWO MUSCULAR PIANO TRIOS completed a program by the Montrose Trio in Carmel on Saturday night. They were the E Minor of 1944 by Dmitri Shostakovich and the D Minor of 1894 by Anton Arensky, two Russian composers of adjacent but very different generations. (Shostakovich was born in 1906, the year Arensky died.) The Shostakovich trio is deep with gravitas and sarcasm while, despite its minor tonality, the Arensky could be salon music, well-crafted but sentimentally romantic. Yet the cohort of pianist Jon Kimura Parker, violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith kept their readings urgent, which benefited the Arensky most. The Shostakovich, technically flawless and slick, however, left out too much of its earthy grit. Someone at the interval was heard to say, “That’s the first Shostakovich I would like to hear again.” Me too, but with more dirt under its fingernails.

The greatest music worldwide reveals its rural roots. Unless its executants get caught up in the high-precision judgments competitions seem to prioritize. It’s a delicate balance, but both sides must be taken into account. Sometimes players and singers deliberately play and sing slightly out of tune, to the dismay of perfectionists but, as often, to the delight of those who recognize such gambits as legitimate elements of expression. After all, we are all conditioned by ‘tempered’ tuning, and favoring technical perfection runs the risk of being perceived as ‘phoning it in.’

The opening of the Shostakovich, a freeze-dried fugue subject in the extreme high range of the cello—already hard enough to execute—is played on only harmonics, and with a mute. This is arguably the most difficult cello passage ever written. As such, pure technical perfection equates with success. But from those heights the music begins to thaw with the entrance of the violin and, in turn, the piano. The sequence of entrances is eerie and deeply disturbing; it opens a portal into the darkest musings of the human mind, a foreboding that will be realized in each of the succeeding movements.

The following Allegro con brio spins a manic frenzy at high speed on the edge of madness. Here there was a problem; there are several crescendos played up-bow on the strings. To make those crescendos actually sound as written throws another technical challenge at the players: play it too fast and you lose the effect, too slow and you bog down the momentum. In this case, the crescendos didn’t sound out as the composer intended. In fairness, part of the blame for that could have resulted from the overall forte-fortissimo in the piano whirling loudly among the strings.

The third movement, Largo, a memorial to a lost friend and colleague played out as a chaconne, calls for soulfully personal musings among the individual players more than the ensemble. The final Allegro compresses the entire piece into a single movement, climaxing on a sarcastically racist Jewish dance followed by themes reiterated from all four movements. The only thing missing was blood on the stage.

The Arensky trio also recalled earlier themes in its final movement. Like the Shostakovich, each with four movements, had symphonic aspirations and got a full-bodied treatment by the Montrose musicians. And, like the Shostakovich, the elegiac Adagio is also a funeral oration. While it lacked the expressive ambition and thunderous angst of the Shostakovich, it held its own as the main work of the program’s second half, coming in at 32 minutes.   

The Montrose opened their show with Joseph Haydn’s Trio in E-flat, HXV:29, a 16-minute warmup that sparkled. Its Andantino second movement was a bit more worldly than its subtitle, “innocentemente,” suggested. Its final Presto contains a great laugh-out-loud Haydn joke where the piano suddenly gets stuck in fits of stuttering.

The sizzling concert encore was the final Presto from Haydn’s Trio in C, HXV:27.

The sponsoring Chamber Music Monterey Bay’s 2019-20 season, just announced, includes the Juilliard String Quartet, INSCAPE Ensemble, Horszowski Trio, Escher String Quartet and the St Lawrence String Quartet with pianist Stephen Prutsman.