Concert Review by Don Howland, host of O M (Orchestral Maneuvers, 20th and 21st Century Classical), Sunday nights 8-10pm on Asheville FM.
Trio Karénine @ Unitarian Universalist Church, Asheville
Sunday, January 13
Robert Schumann: Piano Trio (No. 2) in F Major, Op. 80
Mieczysław Weinberg: Piano Trio, Op. 24
Maurice Ravel: Piano Trio in A Minor
“Nothing is better than music. When it takes us out of time, it has done more for us than we have the right to hope for. It has broadened the limits of our sorrowful lives; it has lit up the sweetness of our hours of happiness by effacing the pettiness that diminishes us, bringing us back pure and new to what was, what will be, and what music has created for us.”
It was Nadia Boulanger, the great Paris-based composition teacher and sister of Lili, the might’ve-been-great composer, who said or wrote that. I am pretty sure it’s accurate: I cut it out of a newspaper letter-to-the-editor. It seems appropriate as an intro to this review because Trio Karénine, the performers under consideration, are Paris-based, and also because they took me – and I think most of the audience – out of time last Sunday.
In the classical music journals I read like Fanfare and the American Record Guide, it is an often-read dis leveled by curmudgeons at youngish (Millennial generation) performers: That their technical prowess may be breathtaking but that the end product is soulless, presumably because they grew up listening to… pop music and might even like it. I would refute this dis (which is hardly unanimous, thankfully) by telling the curmudgeon to go check out the Trio Karénine. And then shut up.
Formed in 2009, they are a fresh-faced trio from Paris who’ve been winning prizes around the continent for much of this decade (a decade that can not end soon enough, but I digress…), comprised of Fanny Robilliard on violin, Louis Rodde on cello, and Paloma Kouider on piano. Taking the floor for the afternoon concert, Trio Karénine eschewed the formal evening wear, opting for duds that evinced a casual elegance, which is a good way of describing the way they go about their business. On their first tour of the United States, they presented three substantial works, each in the half hour range, and they performed magically. They definitely rearranged time. The time glided by like a flock of swallows.
Trio Karénine has released two CDs on the French Mirare label, the first of which contains Robert Schumann’s first two piano trios. Number 2 was the show opener in Asheville. It is a failing of mine (let’s say) that music from Schumann’s era (mid-19th century) elicits no real response. I hear it – it was easy on the ears and the half-hour glided by – but I was there for the two pieces that followed.
Weinberg (aka Vainburg on some labels or programs) is a composer whom I love and play quite often on my radio show. His story is as tragic as the mid-century history of his native Poland: The young Weinberg fled the arrival of the Nazis, heading east to the Soviet Union, which under Stalin was only slightly less anti-Semitic than Hitler’s Germany. The family who stayed behind were all slaughtered by the Nazi pigs. Weinberg was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Shostakovich in Soviet Russia. The two became close friends, often performing each other’s piano works in concert and performing 2-piano repertoire together. In the years after the war and before Stalin’s death, Shostakovich protected Weinberg from persecution. (Stalin, who by conservative estimates killed 100 MILLION of his own people, was planning a Jewish Holocaust all his own at the time of his death in 1953.)
A dis often leveled at Weinberg in the American classical music journals I read is that the Pole was little more than a slavish imitator of Shostakovich. Perhaps because I am NOT versed in the technicalities of composition, I would say that assessment is both lazy and drastically wrong in terms of the art the two men produced. In fact, I suggest the relationship with Shostakovich (who was indeed the GOAT, don’t get me wrong) was far more reciprocal. First of all, Shostakovich didn’t hang with toadies. The composers he spent time with – like Boris Tishchenko and Galina Ustvolskaya – were top-tier geniuses. Moreover, I would contend Shostakovich’s frequent post-WWII use of Jewish themes and subject matter owes a lot to his friendship with Weinberg. And perhaps – could it BE? – the darkness, absurdism, and sarcasm in many of Weinberg’s compositions was his own and not something he cribbed from Shostakovich? Personally, I don’t see how anyone who knows the history of Eastern Europe in the 20th Century, let alone LIVED it, could be anything other than bleakly pessimistic… Calling Weinberg a Shostakovich rip-off, in short, is like calling the Sex Pistols a Ramones rip-off, or Elmore James a Robert Johnson rip-off, which is to say: No.
This misappraisal of Weinberg is mostly a moot issue in Europe, where he is increasingly recognized among the mid- and late-century’s major composers now that the body of work he produced behind the Iron Curtain (he died in 1996) has gained currency. These days, Weinberg’s symphonies are the featured works in concerts of top European orchestras, and personally I consider many of his large-scale works among my very favorite concertos and symphonies. That said, his piano trio is not one I’d listened to much or that I’d have ever included in a list of my favorite Weinberg works. Written in 1945 in the immediate aftermath of the war – and the loss of his family and a brutal 4-year Nazi invasion that saw tens of millions perish – the general tone is anguish, which alternates between agitation and dense melancholia. Like Shostakovich, Weinberg could produce subtle and beautiful melodies at will, but except for a lovely but stunted theme at the opening and conclusion of its final movement, the piece feels more like the severe 12-tone music of Webern, harsh and angular, than anything else. Trio Karénine, which regularly plays Modern-era composers (Rihm, Henze and Hersant, e.g.) in recitals on their own turf, played the Weinberg trio with an urgency and vigor that completely sold me on it. (The fact that they are young, attractive, and cool may have had something to do with it, too.) The tension I sensed in the hall – this was difficult music for a Schubert/Mozart/AARP crowd – was, apparently all in my imagination, as Weinberg got a standing-O. I felt something weird – a smile? – happen to my face.
Ravel’s lone piano trio, the post-intermission headliner for the afternoon’s program, is a piece I do know well, or at least have heard many, many times by different performers, and I love it. (My favorite recording to this point is by the Trio Fontenay, on Teldec.) The third, Passacaglia movement is about as hauntingly beautiful as music gets. I had in fact already watched the Trio Karénine play that third movement several times, thanks to YouTube. The acoustics in the U.U. church, I have to say, were a whole lot better than in the vast cathedral where the vid was recorded, even if the visuals were considerably less impressive.
I think violinist Robilliard, in her introduction to the Ravel trio, was being politely disingenuous when she said the group was a little nervous about playing a work by their great countryman on foreign soil. It seemed from my back-row perch that Trio Karénine knows the piece so well it’s woven into their DNA. They rarely glanced at their sheet music; most of the time, in fact, all three had their eyes closed, firm-lipped commitment on their faces. The brooding, rumbling piano melody that solos for the first :36 of the third movement, the subsequent entry of the cello, and the violin’s entry at 1:12 were handled perfectly. It’s a piece rife with oblique subtleties and Trio Karénine finessed it home. They are all three interesting to watch, but I spent much of my time watching the pianist Kouider, who likes to lean way back and play the one-handed parts like she’s in a deep groove. She was – they all were – in a deep groove; the Ravel trio is Deep Soul, French-style, and that’s how it came off.
I was sad when it was over, and I was apparently not alone as the applause was loud and long enough to get an encore, which was one of those Bugs Bunny hyper-virtuoso things, Flight of the Bumblebees, I think it was… I kinda wanted the Ravel piece to linger in my noggin so I fogged out.
If you want to get an idea of what I’ve been babblin’ ’bout, there are a number of clips on YouTube. I’d avoid the Ravel one for its swallowed-up sound and would recommend this clip from Shostakovich’s second piano trio.
Trio Karénine included the Ravel trio, along with trios by two other French geniuses, Gabriel Fauré and Germaine Tailleferre, on its second CD, also on Mirare, released a year ago. They were selling them in the meeting room Sunday, but they sold out before I could work up the courage to spend $20 for a CD; I have since ordered it from a distributor in England. I cannot imagine, after seeing Sunday’s performance, that it is less than outstanding.
Finally, I want to say to anyone who read this far that I got into this music seeking escape from the sh*tswirl of contemporary culture. And it works brilliantly for that, because listening closely naturally involves losing track of time. Not unlike reading great books. Beyond that: I have lived a long time with my eyes and ears open, and I have to say that, for me, the best works of 20th-century composers like Ravel and Weinberg (and Shostakovich, and Ustvolskaya, and Ligeti, and…) are perhaps the most profound and beautiful art ever created by post-Younger Dryas Event humans. Seeing it live – super-talented artists performing works by super-geniuses – is entirely worth it. I look at it this way: tickets may not be cheap for most classical events (an exception being the occasional shows at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center), but you don’t think about a $40 co-pay (if you’re lucky) to go to the doctor, do you? Well, I mean, you think about it, but you get my drift. The Asheville Chamber Music Series is doing an outstanding service for the city bringing in groups of this caliber. Not much in the way of Modern-era stuff the rest of this season, but keep an eye on their website.