Music

Altenberg Trio at Dumbarton Oaks: From Studied Restraint to Stirring Intensity

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Full-time time piano trios are something of a rarity, so it's been a treat to have a stream of them rolling through town. First came the hip, adventurous Amelia Piano Trio (whose violinist sported a tattoo with her evening gown), followed by the venerable Beaux Arts Trio, which bowed from the scene this month with a sublime farewell performance at the Library of Congress. And on Sunday the Vienna-based Altenberg Trio, a fine ensemble with a rising reputation, arrived at the newly renovated music room at Dumbarton Oaks.

No one will mistake the Altenbergs -- violinist Amiram Ganz, cellist Alexander Gebert and pianist Claus-Christian Schuster -- for wild-eyed revolutionaries; decked out in white tie and tails, they stuck largely to the middle of the middle, playing with formality and restrained correctness. Things got off to a slow start with Beethoven's Variations on "Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu," a work that requires a certain, shall we say, forbearance. Built on a vacuous aria by Wenzel Mueller (the title translates to "I am the Tailor Cockatoo," which is all you need to know), it flirts constantly with insipidity and needs a committed performance to keep it honest. But the Altenberg didn't really try to sell it, turning in a tame, well-mannered account with all the edgy vitality of wallpaper paste.

There was more to sink your brain cells into when the trio returned for Robert Schumann's fascinating Trio No. 3 in G Minor, Op. 110. It's a remarkable work, written in 1851 when Schumann was in decline with mental illness. But there's nothing deranged about the piece. It may sound as if Schumann is slowly tearing open his own heart, but he does it with logic and seething power. And yet, while Ganz (who seemed to be on autopilot during the Beethoven) turned in an often vivid account, the performance felt more professional than personal; Schumann at a cool remove, which is hardly Schumann at all.

The ensemble finally locked onto target in Dmitri Shostakovich's masterly Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, which may be one of the most compelling trios in the repertoire. Written in memory of a friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, who died suddenly in 1944, it is an anguished and shockingly intense work, and the trio played it with insightful, precisely controlled fury. From the plaintive opening to the unbearably delicate close -- which left the audience in silence for several long moments -- the Altenbergs showed that, when they tried, they could be nothing short of stunning.

-- Stephen Brookes


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