In short, this was more of a happening, a star turn, than a musical performance. Not to take anything away from the three sovereign artists, who most certainly gave their all, but the bludgeoning phrases designed to fill the cavernous Concert Hall contrasted almost startlingly with the finesse, unerring unity and deeply thought-through interpretations of the Vienna trio the next afternoon. The latter group was more satisfying in every way that counted, or should.
The novelty on the Vienna program was an arrangement of Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” by his friend Edward Steuermann. It was a wholesale rewriting of the piece; the two string players often playing something completely different than they do in the original sextet version. Some passages came out clearer, others distorted. But early Schoenberg travels well; like the piano quintet version of his Chamber Symphony, the transcription is mostly successful, allowing the music to be heard in different colors.
The Vienna Trio’s pianist, Stefan Mendl, occasionally overbalanced his colleagues and hit strange notes a few times. But he was the backbone of the group, leading the imaginative music-making by example. The subtleties and humor he drew out of Haydn’s Trio in B-flat major (Op. 70, No. 3) were what true artistry is about, though most of it would have been lost in the Kennedy Center. The string players kept the vibrato thin when playing in unison with the piano or each other (creating the effect of a single rainbow-like sound).
With Kavakos and Ma, the focus was necessarily on maximum projection, and they did whatever it took, which was rarely the same thing. There were some lovely moments in their soft playing, though, most memorably the shimmering colors in the alternating chorales in the slow movement of the Brahms. And the teeth-clenching passion of the finale left everyone nearly breathless. But the Schubert was less successful; carelessness differentiating the 16th-note and triplet rhythms in the first movement and a slack feeling in the Andante — surely the middle section could have a lighter character.
It is undeniably exciting to hear three musicians bursting with such virtuosity and charisma together. But their busy solo careers do not permit the hours and hours of granular, bar-by-bar work that the Vienna Trio puts in, and the overall interpretations were unfocused and fairly routine. They fed off the electricity in the hall, though, and emerged like gladiators at the end. The Vienna Trio’s playing fed the soul hungry for a united musical vision and a deep dive into the message behind the notes. It was a privilege to experience both.