The Morgenstern Trio gave a smashing debut Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. Formed in 2005 at an obscure (to us) music school in Germany — the Folkwang Academy — and studying under mentors most of whose names ring no bells, the trio has nonetheless attained a world-class level. In works by Ravel, Bernstein and Brahms, the group displayed a unanimity, polished technique and musical imagination that I thought had vanished from the scene with the demise of the Beaux Arts Trio.
The Morgenstern has, first and foremost, a pianist of otherworldly skill and sensitivity. Catherine Klipfel was neither dramatic nor particularly assertive. But her technique was dazzling, and her careful sculpting of each phrase created a framework that allowed the strings to play with the widest palette of colors instead of the pressing and forcing that is often the default in this genre. Violinist Stefan Hempel and cellist Emanuel Wehse took full advantage.
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard so many of the string colors and sound effects in the Ravel Trio — certainly not in a live performance. Harmonics, pizzicato and whispery arpeggios that are typically buried came through. The ensemble in the “Pantoum” — one of the hardest movements in the entire literature — was razor-sharp, the two simultaneous meters seemingly effortless.
In his solos, Hempel did not match the tonal intensity of Wehse, which led to small anomalies when they played the same material one after the other. The violinist’s left hand was a bit sleepier. But the intonation between the two was faultless all evening.
The group programmed a rarity; I had no idea that Leonard Bernstein wrote a piano trio, but this, his first extant piece of music, completed while an undergraduate, is surprisingly fine. Yes, you can hear Gershwin, Copland, Ravel and Shostakovich, but it is remarkably well-constructed and assured. The Morgenstern’s rendition was as finely honed as everything else on the program.
In the Brahms Op. 8 trio, the group was perhaps too fussy with the structure, unnecessarily setting off one section from another. But the Morgenstern’s clarity of musical detail and technical excellence made this a night to remember. This was one of the best concerts I’ve heard all season.
Battey is a freelance writer.