As part of its Australian tour the Sitkovetsky Trio presented a second program at the Melbourne Recital Centre, including a Carl Vine work commissioned for Musica Viva Australia by Julian Burnside AO QC in honour of the composer’s 60th birthday. This was a feature of both programs which, on this night also included Piano Trio in G minor, Op.15 by Smetana and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A-minor, Op.50, In Memory of a Great Artist.
As the Sitkovetsky Trio bears his name it was perhaps fitting that violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky articulated the first strong phrase of Smetana’s Piano Trio – but it was not long before he was joined by cellist Leonard Elschenbroich with runs in seemingly perfect sync, and the strong but expressive piano of Wu Qian. The concert had thus hardly begun before we had a model of the Sitkovetsky Trio style that was the foundation for an evening of entirely satisfying listening.
The second subject showed the cello to be as resonant as the violin had been, this time accompanied by a delicate piano that held everything together … and a beautifully expressive violin. Whatever the dynamics the strings were virtuosic, given some relief when the piano took over articulation of the theme. Before the end of this movement there was a lovely duet between cello and piano, but it was all three who demonstrated their masterly control of rhythm tempo and power as the movement ended. (Some in the audience could not help but clap).
The second movement began unusually with an Allegro but progressed to an Andante with a gentle rocking movement, yet strong and unsentimental. The violin appeared to soar yet this was truly a Trio for all players as the maestoso with double bowing and low piano chords gave a richness of sound. Three strong notes ended this lovely movement.
As so often with Smetana, the third movement, Presto, at first set a cracking pace for the finale. Unusually, though, the warmth of the music and the connection between players made this seem more like a second movement with all its depth of feeling. (It was a reminder that this work was written when the composer was grieving for the loss of his young daughter).
The Finale proved a showcase for every dynamic, every time signature, every possibility for connection between the three players. The music seemed to simply roll out from the stage, perfectly in sync right through to the piano-led climax.
Having just experienced and left the world of Smetana we had a great opportunity to hear from the composer Carl Vine about the concept for his Piano Trio “The Village” It was interesting to hear how the work played out in 12 episodes being, in the composer’s words, “a village of ideas” and comprising several ideas within each section.
The Sitkovetsky Trio excelled in this interesting and accessible work with opportunities both to highlight each instrument and also to build on the synchronicity and understanding that all three had demonstrated in the first work. The piano was often in dialogue with the strings and was given opportunity to signal changes in the work, while the strings excelled in a pizzicato duet and in interesting effects, including at one point an almost whistling effect.
As with the Smetana, the Carl Vine piece left the audience wanting more – but of course this was to come after interval with the Tchaikovsky piano trio. In a well-conceived program this was the perfect ending especially as it is lengthy without being tiring.
Loss was evidently an inspiration for this work as well as the first in the concert, in this case Tchaikovsky’s close friend Nikolai Rubinstein. The work deals with both loss and happy memories that the composer; hence the first movement was elegiac with Wu Qian’s flowing piano, Elschenbroich’s rich cello and of course, Sitkovetsky’s heart-stopping violin. The minor key lent a sense of sorrow but not despair.
The work is notable for moments of great strength, for example in the chord progressions that suggest Orthodox church music, possibly for a funeral. Wu Qian was again able to show the strength as well as the sensitivity of her playing. But one cannot separate the achievement of the three instruments, so beautifully entwined by the score and their performance.
Notable in the final movement alone were a lively staccato piano before a fuller Slavic treatment of the theme, a fugue, a well-observed crescendo and a delicate frolic from the piano almost like a Chopin waltz. Sitkovetsky’s plaintive violin solo led to the final declamatory variations that tested all three players before the extended climax that ended the work.
The applause was generous and heartfelt but I was pleased that the Sitkovetsky Trio chose not to play an encore. We had already been given an embarrassment of riches in a beautifully conceived program from a deservedly famous international Trio.