l-r: pianist Robert Levin, violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley and cellist Peter Wiley. (courtesy of Spivey Hall)

Review: Schubert piano trios splendidly rendered at Spivey Hall

Mark Gresham | 13 MAY 2019

On Saturday evening at Spivey Hall, pianist Robert Levin, violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley and cellist Peter Wiley gave a truly splendid performance of Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat major and Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major. The May 11 concert was their final stop in a short tour that began May 6 in Pittsburg and included performances in Washington, DC (May 8) and Asheville, NC (May 10).

A world renowned Mozart scholar, improviser, and performer, Levin is a professor emeritus in the Music Department of Harvard Univerity. Bendix-Balgley is first concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker and former concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Wiley was cellist for the legendary Beaux Arts Trio from 1987 to 1998 and the Guarneri Quartet from 2001 through 2009.


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According to Levin, the three musicians came together for the first time at the Nevada Chamber Music Festival in Reno, Nevada, some years ago. “We had such a strong sense of coherence and shared artistic values that we wanted to pursue the relationship beyond that forum,” said Robert Levin in a telephone conversation with EarRelevant earlier in the week.

Bendix-Balgley, Wiley and Levin have recorded the two large Schubert Trios that they played on Saturday’s program, plus the so-called Nocturne (the original second movement for the B-flat Trio, D. 897) and the one-movement Sonatensatz in B-flat major (D. 28) that Schubert wrote when he was 15 years old. Now in the post-production stage, the recording, on the small French label Le Palais des Dégustateurs, will be distributed internationally through Harmonia Mundi, with anticipated release by the end of this year.


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In the same phone conversation, Levin elaborated on the place of the piano trios played on Saturday’s program:

“Schubert’s Piano Trios are in many ways the pinnacle of the genre. It’s a 19th-century scoring above all. Of course there are wonderful piano trios by Haydn and Mozart, very fine trios by Hummel for that matter, and the genre was cultivated by others besides Beethoven and Schubert – Mendelssohn, Schumann, and of course Brahms and Dvorak come to mind. They’re not alone. And there are some 20th century trios that are very well worth playing. But Schubert’s, particularly the E-flat, have an extraordinary emotional intensity.”

“It’s been suggested that the second movement of the of the E-flat Trio was conceived as an elegy on the death of Beethoven, who passed away in March of 1827, and Schubert finished this trio in November of 1827. It belongs to a handful of masterworks by Schubert in which Schubert unflinchingly looks into the abyss of despair and terror and comes back, you could say, maimed for life by the overwhelming experiences that he has witnessed. This is not a typical kind of discourse, so we we feel a particular affinity to music which contains such such powerful emotions.”

That emotional intensity came across in this concert, but with great clarity and at times astonishing nuance, so one became very conscious of the more Classical aspects of Schubert’s mature style as much as its Romantic inclinations. The exceptionally enjoyable performance by Bendix-Balgley, Wiley and Levin makes this listener eagerly look forward to the release of their CD. ■


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