Northwest Piano Trio review: three, four, five

Augmented threesome shines in music by Mozart, Schubert and Dvorak

by TERRY ROSS

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) started writing a piano trio in the last year or so of his brief life, but he used the slow adagio movement as a stand-alone piece, which he thought of as Adagio and his publisher called Notturno, presumably because of its peaceful nature. The violin and cello play its sinuous and mesmeric melody to a plucked accompaniment in the treble and bass, both played on the piano imitating a harp.

In their most recent concert, on June 10 in Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, the Northwest Piano Trio — pianist Susan McDaniel, violinist Heather Mastel-Lipson, and cellist Hillebrand — gave a dreamy, easy-sounding rendition, with the cellist often playing in the viola range, leaving the low notes to the piano. It was a beautiful nine-minute piece beautifully done.

Although Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor from 1785 (the first piece ever written for the ensemble of piano, violin, viola, and cello) was commissioned for amateurs, it immediately proved too difficult, and was left to professional players. In the hands of the Northwest Piano Trio, abetted by violist Hillary Oseas, its 25 minutes emerged smoothly, culminating in a lovely third-movement Rondeau.

Northwest Piano Trio added a pair of guests for its performance of Dvorak’s famous quintet. Photo: Logan Brown.

After the intermission came the main event. Dvorak was in his prime when he wrote his second piano quintet in 1888, with his two great symphonies (No. 8 and No. 9 “From the New World”) coming in 1889 and 1893. His Opus 81 was instantly acclaimed upon its premiere and was soon grouped with the piano quintets of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms as the best of its genre. Dmitri Shostakovich’s quintet joined this trio later.

Dvorak’s five-hander announces itself immediately with all the instruments playing loudly. And here one can already notice one of its defining features: all five instruments participate more or less equally, without the piano doubling the strings overmuch and the string quartet an independent force. In the first-movement, the cello states a beguiling tune that later turns up several times wearing different clothing. In the second movement “Dumka” (a form, beloved of Dvorak, in which somber, slow music alternates with lively dance music), the viola steps up with its own soulful music in the slow sections. The third movement Scherzo, furiant, marked molto vivace (very lively) is a five-minute dose of Slavic energy, leading into the allegro Finale, in which a Mendelssohnian chorale near the end surprises and pleases before an energetic ending.

It’s always a treat to hear Dvorak’s chamber music, with its abundance of melodies and brilliant part-writing, performed well. Cellist Hillebrand played with exceptional warmth and forthright expression. Pianist McDaniel seemed to execute her not infrequently challenging part effortlessly. Second violinist Nelly Kovalev, who plays in the Portland Opera Orchestra, played with great assurance and rose to the occasion in her brief solo passages, and violist Oseas, who plays with the Portland Baroque Orchestra, was especially good in her solo passages, which contain some of Dvorak’s most elegant melodic writing. First violinist Mastel-Lipson, a Portland Opera member and co-concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, played accurately and in perfect tune, but I could have used a much heavier right hand; her solo passages did not stand out as they should.

But this is a mere cavil; the Northwest Piano Trio is superb. Committed to “the performance of traditional classical music while also exploring the music of 20th and 21st century composers,“ they have yet to announce their 2017-18 season, but perhaps before they do they’ll put their heads together and find themselves a much catchier name.

Recommended recordings

• Schubert Notturno

Florestan Trio (Hyperion CDA67273), 2001.

• Mozart Piano Quartet in G Minor

Mozart: Piano Quartets: Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, and Yo-Yo Ma (Sony 88875070972), 1994.

Dvorak Quintet in A Major

Dvorak — Piano Quintets: Sviatoslav Richter with the Borodin Quartet (Philips E4757560), 2006.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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