Peoples' Symphony Concerts ended their 2011-2012 Festival Series at New York City's Town Hall on Sunday (April 17) on a positive note with the Schumann Trio, a stellar aggregation of clarinetist Anthony McGill, violist Michael Tree, pianist Polonsky, playing music by Mozart, Schumann, Bruch and Brahms.
Each of these musicians has an active career of their own, but they come together from time to time to explore the repertory available for a trio of clarinet, viola and piano – sometimes expanding that repertory through their own rearrangement of music from other media. McGill is justly famous as principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and received international exposure for his playing when he participated in a performance of a specially-commissioned piece during the January 2009 inauguration ceremony for President Obama, broadcast internationally. Michael Tree was for many years the esteemed violist of the Guarneri String Quartet, one of the most critically-acclaimed American chamber music ensembles, that recently disbanded. Anna Polonsky has an active career as a recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist. We in the Peoples' Symphony audience were lucky to catch one of their occasional collaborations. Perhaps the combination of brilliantly beautiful spring weather and the unfamiliarity of the ensemble by collective name accounted for the less than stellar attendance on this occasion.
I have to confess that repeated exposure over many years has failed to convince me of the merits of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Trio in Eb, K. 498, sometimes called the Kegelstatt Trio. Although this 1786 composition is a work of the composer's maturity, it nonetheless strikes me as distinctly less interesting than his trios for the more usual combination of piano, violin and cello, and I find myself tuning out as the music proceeds. These musicians can't be blamed for that. I've had the same reaction to every performance I've heard.
But things picked up for me promptly with the Schumann Marchenerzahlungen (Fairy Tales), Op. 132, four delightful character pieces that make excellent use of the contrasting instrumental timbres. This received a very lively reading. Then we had two movements (Nos. 5 & 7) from Max Bruch's Romantic Pieces, Op. 83. These were even more delightful than the Schumann, leading to my one real regret about this recital. I would happily have traded in the Mozart in exchange for a complete performance of Bruch's Op. 83!
After intermission, we had Johannes Brahms's great Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, in a new arrangement by Michael Tree substituting the viola for the cello. The "authentic" variation on the original version is for the viola to substitute for the clarinet, as authorized by Brahms, to make a low-voiced trio for piano and strings. By substituting the viola for the cello, Tree has produced a subtle but important difference. As Brahms's original alternative indicated, he saw the clarinet and viola as been alternatives in the same general musical range. Pulling the cello part up into the viola range changes the work from a trio into something more like a "trio sonata" (the baroque form with two "equal" instruments playing with a keyboard, customarily performed with an additional instrument to reinforce the keyboard bass line), or even a duo for two instruments with keyboard accompaniment. But it could hardly be deemed the last of these alternatives with the vigorous Ms. Polonsky at the keyboard, an equal partner in every respect.
The ultimate question about any arrangement, of course, is whether it works musically, and I thought that it did. Although one might miss the deeper bass lines of the original, the intertwining of the clarinet and viola had its own interest, and Brahms' work – like Bach's – lends itself to instrumental re-arrangment, as he realized by not only authorizing an alternative instrumentation for this work but also authorizing his two clarinet sonatas to be performed by violists!
The proof is in the playing, and this performance was stupendous. McGill and Tree were well-matched in virtuosity, and Polonsky's performance — throughout the concert, not just in this number — was superbly accomplished. She knows when to blend and when to bring out her part, and imparts real energy to the proceedings. I hope this combination will do some recording (the complete Bruch, please, pretty please), and I hope to hear all of these artists again soon.
Although this marks the end of the Festival Series in Town Hall for this season, Peoples' Symphony will be presenting two more concerts at Washington Irving High School. On Saturday, April 30, the great Russian-born pianist Vladimir Feltsman will play a "don't miss, be there" recital, and on Saturday, May 14, the fabled pianist Menahem Pressler, who has remained very active since the disbanding of the Beaux Arts Trio, will join the Jupiter Quartet for an evening of chamber music. (I regret that travel outside the NY metro area will keep me from the May 14 program. It's another "don't miss, be there" event.)