Mendelssohn Piano Trio Studies Beethoven at American Art Museum’s Steinway Series


Mendelssohn Piano Trio includes, from left, pianist Ya-Ting Chang, violinist Peter Sirotin and cellist Fiona Thompson. (Dan Mullen)

The Mendelssohn Piano Trio plans to perform all of Beethoven’s piano trios during the next three years, a journey that began Sunday afternoon at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Steinway Series. Each of these concerts promised to include a work from the composer’s early, middle and late periods. This could offer insight into Beethoven’s lifelong interest in the piano trio, but although the group’s performance was competent, this was a curiously somnolent concert.

Much of this seemed to come down to the reticent playing style of cellist Fiona Thompson, who was often so self-effacing that she could barely be heard. This was less of a problem in the earlier pieces, where the cello part is often doubled by the pianist’s left hand. The early C minor trio (Op. 1, No. 3, from 1793) was mostly a showcase for the pianist, and Ya-Ting Chang held her own at the keyboard, flying through the extensive figuration in the outer movements but adding too much sustaining pedal in the second movement.

The “Variations on an Original Theme,” although published later as Op. 44, is actually also from the early 1790s. It is based on a trivial staccato tune of arpeggiated notes, which inspired 14 variations, again featuring the piano most prominently.

Intonation discrepancies cropped up between the two string players (and the venue’s Steinway could have used a little tune-up), but violinist Peter Sirotin gave a mostly elegant performance.

The final work was the “Archduke” trio, from 1811, not quite late enough to qualify as Beethoven’s late period, but it felt a little underpowered (plodding at times in the first and third movements), smoothed out, even lugubrious. A burst of life appeared in the finale, but it was too little too late.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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