At National Gallery, Mendelssohn Piano Trio offers sumptuous romantic feast


Mendelssohn Piano Trio (Joe Yei)
July 1, 2013

Take some sweeping passion and a bit of soaring ecstasy, add a dash of heart-rending despair, season with heaving breasts and sighing melodies, then mix it all together with impeccable elegance and taste — that’s romantic-era music at its best, and the National Gallery of Art was awash in the stuff Sunday night, when the fine young Mendelssohn Piano Trio presented a program so lush, substantial and richly flavored you wanted to eat it with a knife and fork.

Given the ensemble’s name, you’d expect Mendelssohn himself to be front and center on the program, and his Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 made a strong opening to the evening. The work, from 1845, is quintessential Mendelssohn — roiling with emotion, but always firmly in control of itself — and that’s exactly how the Mendelssohn players approached it. They’re a wonderfully diverse group: The hard-charging Taiwanese pianist Ya-Ting Chang brought muscle to the music, while violinist Peter Sirotin — a native of Ukraine — displayed a precise and slightly cool professionalism, and English cellist Fiona Thompson anchored the music with quiet assurance. That made for an engaging performance, technically immaculate and often very eloquent, with a finely calibrated sense of dramatic flow. You never sensed that they were really tearing open a vein — there was little of the white-hot intensity and wild passion that make romantic-era music burst fully to life — but it was a warm and deeply felt performance nonetheless, and beautifully played.

It was a fine idea to pair the inward-looking Mendelssohn piece with Tchaikovsky’s more epic — even symphonic — Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, which took up the second half of the evening. Tchaikovsky apparently hated the sound of these three instruments together (he called it “torture”), but you’d never know it from this 1882 work, which opens with a brooding “Pezzo elegiaco” and closes with a spectacular set of variations, all written in memory of his friend Nikolai Rubinstein. The trio gave it a thoughtful reading, rich in psychological insight, that drew together the threads of nostalgia, celebration, tenderness and regret that weave through the music, like a tapestry of delicate and already-fading memories.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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