We heard some dazzling playing last night at Sunset Center by the Morgenstern Piano Trio (violinist Stefan Hempel, cellist Emanuel Wehse and pianist Catherine Klipfel). This was the third time Chamber Music Monterey Bay has brought us these splendid musicians, and, as in their past appearances, we witnessed levels of mastery and refinement such as you usually encounter only in commercially produced (and highly edited) recorded performances. The highly polished and finished playing we heard was amazing in its technical perfection and artistic integrity as it addressed three very different works in the course of the evening’s program.
There were two surprises in store for us. The program began with a piano trio composed by a 19-year-old Leonard Bernstein while a student at Harvard University studying composition with Walter Piston. Although this was a work that Bernstein himself dismissed as a piece of juvenilia (it lay unpublished until forty years later in 1979), it turned out to be a well-crafted piece brimming over with vitality and demonstrating unusual skills in writing for string instruments and piano. Bernstein was a world-class pianist equal to any pianistic challenge (a talent he shared with another contemporary American composer, Lukas Foss), and thus throughout this trio we heard many passages uniquely characteristic to Bernstein — jazzy blue notes, intricately difficult passages for piano and an occasional lyricism he later turned to good advantage in creating music for Broadway. One of the most interesting features of this work was the effective and exciting fugue ending the first movement, which was later partially reprised in the final movement. Pianist Klipfel had her hands busy with a lot of notes (Bernsteins’ piano writing is often challenging), but she dispensed them with a disarming total confidence and mastery. Violinist Hempel and cellist Wehse also charmed us with their fabulous playing
The other surprise of the evening was hearing Frank Bridge’s 1907 Phantasie Trio in C Minor, one of Bridge’s Edwardian works written in a late romantic style he later abandoned after the First World War. Especially appealing were the beautiful opening melodies performed with a lush romantic flair by violinist Hempel and cellist Wehse, with pianist Klipfel noodling away in the background, although occasionally emerging to play a major role. Although there are some beautiful moments in this work, it somehow fails to remain long in the memory, for there are no great melodies and only one rhythmic episode of interest. However, hearing this work does tantalize us to ponder whether there are other works by Frank Bridge that deserve revival.
The program ended with the great Schubert Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 100, a work that taxes the listener with its epic length of 50 minutes (that’s a few minutes longer than the Brahms Second Piano Concerto or Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata). Ah, but it contains so many beauties — some of them heart rending and some of them dazzling with magical passages for each instrument. The “jewell in the crown” of this piece is the lovely second movement, Andante con moto, the theme of which was the one redeeming factor in the soundtrack of the 1975 film “Barry Lyndon” — a gorgeously produced but boringly slow-moving film, I don’t think I could ever sit through again. The film’s greatest service was to introduce the beautiful slow movement of this trio to millions of people, who probably wouldn’t have heard it otherwise.
So, to hear it played with such style and abandon by the Morgenstern Piano Trio was a treat — albeit a very long one, and at its conclusion it received a boisterous standing ovation. The players responded with an encore of a movement of a contemporary piano trio by the French woman composer Germaine Tailleferre.
What can we say about the Morgenstern Piano Trio — exquisite players always playing interesting music. May they return soon.