Among the superstars of the chamber music world, few induce as much open-mouthed rapture as the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, which arrived in town Tuesday as part of the Fortas Chamber Music Series at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. On their own, these are don’t-miss performers, but thrown into the bargain were violist Michael Tree and bass player Harold Robinson for a fascinating program that paired Schubert’s much-loved “Trout” quintet with a new piece (inspired by the Schubert work) by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
Things got off to a feisty start with Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 11. It’s full of the easy charm you often find in his early music, but there’s a finely honed edge to it, too. Building on a popular tune of the day, Beethoven wallows mischievously in its empty-headedness before sticking his knife in, giving it a little twist and raising the whole thing to perfection. The Trio played it with terrific subtlety and wit, and — of course — spectacular virtuosity.
But the showpiece of the evening was Zwilich’s “Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass, and Piano.” She wrote it for the same instruments as Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet and took her inspiration from the same source, but the piece turned out to be a different kettle of fish entirely. Where Schubert’s trout plays happily in calm and limpid waters, glinting in the summer sun, Zwilich’s is named “Die Launische Forelle” — “The Moody Trout” — and churns and thrashes its way darkly upstream.
It’s an interesting conceit, and Zwilich is no slouch as a composer. But she is a fairly mainstream thinker who’s never made much use of vernacular music, and her use of blues and jazz elements to evoke the moody trout sounded a bit contrived, with more than a whiff of academia about it. Far more convincing was the Schubert, which closed the program. Not his most accomplished music, perhaps, but this was a superb performance, full of warmth and light and an almost overpowering optimism that washed away the vestiges of Zwilich’s ersatz blues.
Brookes is a freelance writer.