Chamber Music Society series at Drew University closes season with alluring piano trios

CHAMBER music drew university


From left, Jose Franch-Ballester, Evren Ozel and David Finckel at The Concert Hall at Drew University in Madison.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center showed off their customary attention to detail and meticulous polish in a sold-out concert on April 20 at The Concert Hall at Drew University in Madison. “A Tale of Three Trios” highlighted the dynamic musical contrasts of the piano trio repertoire through 18th-20th century works by German composers, tinted in romanticism.

The first half of the concert explored the clarinet’s dynamic range through a classical trio by Ludwig van Beethoven followed by a selection of romantic miniatures by Max Bruch. The second half featured a medley of Johannes Brahms’ popular Hungarian Dances for 4-hands piano followed by Felix Mendelssohn’s second piano trio with virtuosic violin.

Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, co-artistic directors of CMS since 2004, pulled from their high caliber of soloists — pianist Evren Ozel, violinist Arnaud Sussmann and clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester — and they all brought persuasive, clean playing and brilliant handling.

The CMS-Drew concert series is part of CMS’s mission to spread the repertoire far and wide and to make the hallowed grounds of chamber music more accessible. CMS is one of the 11 musical entities of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the largest chamber music producer in North America.


The Concert Hall at Drew University.

The partnership with Drew goes back to the 2006-07 season, when the Wu Han-Finckels (they have been married since 1985) were invited by the university to launch a chamber music concert series as residency partners.

For Finckel, the series is deeply personal. He was raised in Madison, a few blocks from the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts, where the series is staged. Wu Han joked in introductory remarks that her husband knows every crack of the Madison sidewalks. Her comments set a lighthearted, social tone for the evening.

There was an organic ebb and flow to the music, most evident in the Beethoven trio for clarinet, cello and piano, also known as the “Gassenhauer Trio.”

Beethoven scored it in B-flat major to enable fast passages for the clarinet, which had not yet benefitted from the development of modern key and fingering systems. He also wrote a violin arrangement to substitute for the clarinet, for better marketability, and to this day, it is more commonly heard with the violin.

Franch-Ballester’s eloquence and technical dexterity made a strong case for the original clarinet scoring. Beginning with the arpeggios in the opening Allegro con brio, he set the pacing and shaping, always well-controlled. Finckel and Ozel followed with a light touch that allowed the full range of the clarinet to soar. The instrument sang smoothly, with clear and warm tonalities across the melodic line.

Ozel used full, round tones on legato passages and brilliant scales in the serpentine solos. There was a feeling of spontaneity and jauntiness in the famous “Pria ch’io l’impegno” finale, named after a popular aria from Joseph Weigl’s opera, “L’amor marinaro ossia Il corsaro,” which Beethoven used to set the theme. The blithe allegretto, with its nine inventive variations, culminated in a frisky closing trio.

The clarinet took the spotlight again for the rich, ripe lyricism of Bruch’s Eight Pieces (Acht Stücke), Op. 83 from 1909. The composer wrote prolifically but his works are seldomly performed outside of his crowd-pleasing Violin Concerto and Kol Nidrei.

Unlike his more-famous, 20th century contemporaries — avant-garde groundbreakers Stravinsky, Bartók and Schoenberg — his style is rooted in late Romanticism and the conservative traditions of Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms.

In accordance with his wishes, the eight vignettes are mixed and matched, and rarely played as a cohesive work.

CMS maximized textural and mood contrasts by beginning the selection with the second movement, followed by the third, sixth and seventh. The Nachtgesang’s introspective nocturn and tender cadenza created a nice contrast with the final Allegro Vivace’s vitality and snap.

Franch-Ballester mixed and matched clarinets, using two separate instruments with different key systems to facilitate key changes, swapping mouthpieces between (and within) movements.

Piano serves mainly as accompaniment, and Ozel did so unflaggingly, accentuating the clarinet’s sweet, flowing melody.

Cello joins the clarinet in duets and in contrasting, conversational passages. Finckel’s thoughtful interpretation created a lyrical heart. Romantic and rhapsodic turns were deeply felt but never excessive or overly ornamented.


Evren Ozel and Wu Han at The Concert Hall at Drew University.

After the intermission, Wu Han warmed up her fingers with an upbeat selection from Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in a four-hand piano setting with Ozel. The showstopping suite of 21 works was inspired by young Brahms’ friendship with Eduard Reményi, a violinist and Hungarian refugee who introduced him to gypsy folk music.

The duo handled all of Brahms’ harmonic twists and turns, with Ozel on primo (the upper register) and Wu Han on secondo (the lower register) in control of the pedal work.

The spirited, energetic pair brought out all the playfulness of the No. 7 in A major “Allegretto.” Ozel’s graceful agility was on display with the cascade of sixteenth notes and fluttering ornaments in the No. 1 in G minor “Allegro molto.” Wu Han took the thematic lead for No. 4 in F minor “Poco sostenuto,” highlighting all of its wild mood swings between melancholy and mania.

Violinist Arnaud Sussmann was in top form for the Mendelssohn Trio No. 2, a hypnotic work of virtuosic composition built around formal, classical structures.

Mendelssohn wrote two piano trios in his short lifetime but his second one from 1845 — Op. 66 in C minor scored for piano, violin and cello — is less widely performed.


Arnaud Sussmann, left, with Wu Han and David Finckel at The Concert Hall at Drew University.

Sussmann was the perfect match for Mendelssohn’s clean, clear expression. He brings an old school bearing and an appealing sound, firm but honeyed, with fearless projection. Textures never lost their clarity, not even in the jubilant climax of the Finale, nor in the sprightly Scherzo with its staggered entrances and playful pizzicatos.

Wu Han laid into the Allegro energico with rippling arpeggios and fiery chord work set in bold relief. Her expansive “chorale” section of the allegro, inspired by the famous “Old Hundredth” Lutheran Christmas melody, was shaped with careful balance.

While she tackled Mendelsohn’s formidable piano notes, the strings tucked into the main musical motifs with elegance and sobriety. Finckel’s resonant lower register sustained tension and counterbalance against Sussmann’s grace in the melodic, rhythmic Andante.

Chamber music thrives on stylish musicians who show great affinity for the repertoire, understand each other and create a strong sense of ensemble. The concert accomplished this to full effect.


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