Review: Hermitage Piano Trio in Rockville

December 16, 2013

The Hermitage Piano Trio was formed only two years ago and is already on its second pianist. But at the Trio’s performance Sunday at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, newcomer Ilya Kazantsev was virtually flawless in Rachmaninoff’s monstrous Trio No. 2, Op. 9. The piece is a not-so-miniature piano concerto; the string writing is almost entirely homophonic and startlingly inept, which is why it’s almost never performed. But a hungry pianist has much to devour here, and Kazantsev ranged over the keyboard with unruffled mastery, his colleagues contributing gloomy melodies now and then.

In the famous Mendelssohn Trio No. 1, Op. 49, however, Kazantsev seemed less sure of himself. Although the passage-work was admirably clear (with very little pedal), his melodic phrasing was stilted, not always well thought-through. In the Andante, the cross-rhythms with his partners were often approximate. This young artist has a lot of potential, but also needs some seasoning and experience.

The string playing was very fine, though the Hermitage is the only piano trio I know of where the cellist’s sound predominates. Sergey Antonov, playing on an anonymous French instrument, frequently overpowered violinist Misha Keylin (on a Gagliano); this was even more curious given Antonov’s self-defeating tendency to tense up his right shoulder in solos. But Keylin’s sound was often undernourished, with a vibrato that was inconsistent from one finger to the next. Otherwise, blend and intonation were quite good, with soaring intensity at climaxes.

The concert opened with a one-movement trio in E-flat by Alexander Alyabiev (1787-1851). The striking thing about it was how much it sounded like early Beethoven; there was not a single bar that sounded “Russian” in any sense, this from a composer who spent his entire life in that country.

The concert as a whole offered generic energy more than subtlety of ideas, but the Hermitage is certainly a trio of virtuosos, and if they do the hard work ahead of them, they could become a major presence on the scene.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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