Mark Gresham | 14 SEP 2021
On Monday evening, the Summit Piano Trio (Helen Hwaya Kim, violin; Charae Krueger, cello; Robert Henry, piano) performed their first 2021-22 season concert with a pair of highly familiar works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn plus a lesser-known gem by Sergei Rachmaninoff.
The group opened with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 1 no. 3, the last in a set of three piano trios first performed in 1795 at the home of their dedicatee, Prince Lichnowsky, and published the same year. They were not Beethoven’s first compositions to be published, despite their designation as Op. 1 but were the first the composer felt were substantial enough to give the three trios an opus number.
Beethoven himself thought the third trio the best of the set. Even compared to the other two, it was a bold, innovative new musical voice. So much so that composer Franz Joseph Haydn, who heard and admired the three trios, cautioned Beethoven to hold off on publishing the third, as he felt the public would not understand it. Beethoven disagreed and, according to the publisher, the set was quite successful.
The Summit Trio gave it a well-considered performance, although it would not be the pinnacle of the evening. That would come after intermission.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was 18 years old when he wrote the Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor in January 1892, during his final year at the Moscow Conservatory. It was premiered on January 30 with the composer at the piano, his first independent concert. This 15-minute trio is written in a single movement, has no opus number, and remained unpublished until 1947. Rachmaninoff would come to write a second, much longer, three-movement Trio élégiaque in December 1893 following the death of Tchaikovsky, designated Op. 9, that is more than three times the length of the first. It was revised first in 1907, then again in 1917 when it was finally given the tag “No. 2” to the earlier, as yet unpublished trio.
That second trio is an elegy for Pytor Tchaikovsky in the wake of his sudden death. This first Trio élégiaque also shows a connection to Tchaikovsky through the latter’s Trio in A minor, by way of Rachmaninoff’s unusual, episodic use of sonata form and in the concluding funeral march. More to the point is Rachmaninoff’s opening theme. It uses a repetitive four-note rising motif like the descending four-note unison horn call at the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, in the same rhythm but with the notes in reverse order.
But unlike Tchaikovsky’s concerto, in Rachmaninoff’s Trio, the piano introduces its theme quietly in the initial “Lento lugubre” section before passing it off to the violin and cello. Even at this young age, Rachmaninoff demonstrates throughout the work his ability to draw a broad spectrum of color and expression from the substantial piano part, which Mr. Henry handles beautifully.
After intermission came another repertoire favorite, the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, op. 49 of Felix Mendelssohn.
Most striking was the superb choice of tempo for the opening movement, which was not as fast as is usually played. It was the absence of impatience that was most striking. There was a feeling of no need to rush the piece forward, and yet there was plenty of enough momentum in the performance. This unhurried approach gave the work’s lyrical characteristics room to breathe and sing. It caught and held the attention.
That set up the songlike second movement, introduced by the piano. The piano also opened the short and light scherzo that followed. The unsurprisingly active Finale came at its end to a sunny D major —a happy conclusion for the Summit Trio’s performance.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kennesaw State University was a local pioneer of live-streaming concerts on the internet. Although they do not post those videos later for on-demand viewing, the ability to “attend virtually” in real-time has been a tremendous asset to an audience at a distance. They have helped point the way to practices that have, of necessity, become the new norm for concerts. ■