For their Canadian debut, the musicians of the Busch Trio performed a one-off concert rather than the more usual tour. Pianist Omri Epstein and his brother, cellist Ori Epstein, were joined by their colleague, violinist Mathieu van Bellen, in flying from Amsterdam to Vancouver for Tuesday night’s concert, their first for Friends of Chamber Music. And then, after a free day in Vancouver, they flew right back to Amsterdam.
As Tuesday’s Friends of Chamber Music audience heard, this young piano trio features a violin and cello working with gut strings, giving a distinctly different timbre from most modern-string instruments. Plus, the violin happens to be a Guadagnini (Turin, 1783) instrument formerly owned by the Trio’s namesake and chamber music superstar of the first half of the 20th century, Adolf Busch. Busch’s trio with his brother, cellist Hermann Busch, and pianist Rudolf Serkin is the stuff of legend!
This 21st century Busch Trio (named for, rather than featuring Adolf Busch) began the concert with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K 502 piano trio, the composer’s first of five such trios created over two years. Written in 1786, only five years before the composer’s early death, this is music with a brilliance and sparkle that features the piano in an almost concerto-like dominant role. On Tuesday, the musicians’ playing was brisk and elegant. There were a few slight wobbles, and we may chalk those up to jet lag. Mozart’s music, in three movements, was played with charm, sweet tone, and lovely balance. Despite their relative youth, these musicians have established a relationship based on practising together that allows them to play as an integrated unit, the hallmark of great chamber music groups.
After Mozart came two piano trio classics of the 20th century, first Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio (1914), and after the intermission Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 (1944). These two trios bookended two World Wars, being separated by forty years.
Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor started with ethereal and delicate notes that blended into a haunting melody. The music built, becoming passionate, tender, even plaintive at times. This score demands a transparency of sound as well as an echo of Gallic charm from the musicians – and that is what we heard. The second movement is designed to reflect the pantoum verse form in musical form and is a warm scherzo. We heard this music made with dynamic energy balanced with sweetness and charm. Ravel used the traditional form of a Passacaille for his third movement. As violinist Mathieu van Ballen explained later, this form traditionally has a repeated gradually descending bassline, and that structure is observed by the composer in this trio. The movement built to an emotional and exciting climax, then dropped to a duet between the two string instruments. The finale was filled with energy and shifts in timbral colours and changing rhythms, bringing the music to an exciting conclusion. This performance was filled with excitement and passion, and any jet lag must have been forgotten by the musicians. Their playing was exuberant and warm, while still balanced and sufficiently cool to reflect the composer’s intentions.
After the intermission, any restraint was released with their performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Opus 67. Written in 1944, toward the end of World War II, this is music in which the composer creates strong allusions to Jewish music, as well as reflecting on the tragedies and deaths that had surrounded him during those recent years. From the spooky cello harmonics at the opening, the first movement was run through with sadness, although there are strange folk music allusions that surge up from time to time. The emotion and intensity were palpable through the playing by all three musicians. Then came the short scherzo that was taken so dangerously fast in this concert – while still being cleanly articulated and balanced, as well as highly emotional – that when it was over, I felt drained and breathless just sitting in the audience! Experiencing that scherzo in that way meant that the slow funeral dirge and death knell of the largo made an enormous contrast for us in the audience. The musicians made their wisely conceived overall structure for the piece initially sound like incendiary spontaneity in one movement. But that soon changed, as they used their virtuosic ability and expressiveness to increase the contrasting feelings elicited from their listeners.
This is mature and sophisticated artistry and was very effective in crafting the Busch’s interpretation of the music. In another indication of that sophistication, van Bellen commented that they had enjoyed contrasting Ravel’s and Shostakovich’s different uses of the passacaglia bassline structure. While Ravel had stayed with the traditional ever-descending pattern, Shostakovich in his funerary movement first used it in the expected downward pattern of notes, but later in the movement changed it to an upward sequence. This implies a change in meaning as well as in the music, perhaps implying some hope for the future?
Written by the composer to follow without a break, the final Allegretto brought out the klezmer allusions and gradually built to a danse macabre, balancing sardonic humour with mourning – as is the pattern with this and other of Shostakovich’s works. We in the Friends audience are fortunate to be familiar with his cycle of 15 string quartets from past concerts (especially the Borodin Quartet playing the whole cycle in May 2015), and there are plenty of examples of his wry smiles and tears in those works, too.
On Tuesday evening, these three amazing musicians brought this music filled with emotional intensity to an almost unbearable peak and then eased down to the final quiet notes. When the music stopped, we all breathed for several seconds before a wave of enthusiastic applause erupted in the concert hall. This felt like a notably special performance of searing intensity blended with great technique that will be remembered for a long time. As was expressed by more than one attendee, “The Busch Trio is amazing. Bring them back any time.”
The Trio’s most recent recording is a pairing of the Ravel and Shostakovich piano trios. They brought copies of all their CDs to sell at the concert, and while several titles intrigued audience members, that most recent disc sold out in moments on the strength of this performance.