The stage in the Smithsonian's Hall of Musical Instruments last night was set for heaven-storming with two of the mightiest piano trios in the chamber music repertory -- the Dvorak F Minor (Op. 65) and the Brahms C Minor Trio (Op. 101).
The performers were drawn from the Smithsonian Chamber Players -- Marilyn McDonald, violin, Kenneth Slowik, cello, with guest pianist Lambert Orkis. For extra emphasis, they played, respectively, the Guarneri 1741 "Janowich" violin, the Stradivari 1701 "Servais" cello and the 1892 "Paderewski" Steinway. It was a formidable cast for formidable music.
In back-to-back confrontation, the composers seemed to reverse their customary roles. Dvorak hurled thunderbolts, and Brahms, after demonstrating that he also did thunderbolts on occasion, supplied the grace and emerged the more human of the two. Both works are large-scale, both tough-minded pieces, both the music of two creators at their mature and artistic best. The demand on performers is awesome, asking for consummate ability and keenest sensibility. One should only perform these pieces when the red-blood count is at its highest.
Perhaps the composers asked too much. The players were certainly equipped, their knowledge ready, but there was a distance between the players and the music. The serpentine lines of the Dvorak did not swing; the dynamic range seemed limited. There was little of that thrill a listener gets when he knows the performer is reacting emotionally to the moment. The responses seemed more academic than organic.
Perhaps the instruments were somewhat to blame. The cello, epic in itself, several inches longer and wider than the average cello, was sonorous, but Slowik played in a guarded manner, seemingly afraid of letting go. He avoided the use of tremolo, which stifled the song. The violin, too, held its lyric statements in check. The "Paderewski" piano can play softly, and it can be forceful, even though its upper register tends to be shrill. But there is a middle dynamic level where music sits most of the time, and this middle, thoughtful place was hard to find.
In the Brahms Trio, Orkis gave one the feeling that he threw off the wraps and played from the heart. Both violin and cello came along, and it was then the music spoke from the heart to the heart. Passion is dangerous with such technically demanding music, but it is worth the risk.