There was thunderous applause at the end of the April 27 concert by the Tetzlaff Piano Trio at Herbst Theatre presented by San Francisco Performances. In response to the standing ovation the three musicians (violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt) played one encore – the third Dumka from Dvořák’s Piano Trio in E Minor, Op. 90. This piece was performed in protest against the earlier-in-the-day shooting at a synagogue in California and “to spread love and hope in the world.” The galvanized adulation of the audience came as a direct result of a previously performed work on the program by Dvořák, his 1882 Piano Trio in F Minor, Op. 65. This dark composition, a result of the composer’s reaction to his mother’s passing and the deep influence of the impassioned side of Johannes Brahms, made up the second half of the program, which had begun with Mozart’s 1786 Piano Trio in B-flat Major, K. 502 and the 1943 Shostakovich Piano Trio in E Minor, Op. 67.
The evening began in high spirits, with Mozart’s B-flat Trio, written to satisfy a growing demand for such ensemble among amateur chamber groups in Vienna. The writing often resembles a concertante piece or trio-sonata for piano with accompaniment from violin and cello. Each of the Vogt runs and cascades would top off with a fine melody, reminiscent of the piano concertos, K. 467 and K. 503. The Tetzlaff opened with a brisk sense of joyful invention, with Mozart’s eschewing a secondary theme as such – after the piano’s initial statement – for a variant on the original tune. Lars Vogt demonstrated early the gem-like resonance of his playing, while the two Tetzlaffs intoned their parts with a richness that only increased in intensity as the evening gathered dramatic momentum. The E-flat Major Larghetto movement became even more intimate, a jeweled temenos or “sacred space” of refined sound, opulently decorated at each repetition of the main theme. The last movement again relished its concertante sensibility, quick, lithe, ever transformative of the rollicking motives without any sense of fatigue in a chain of liquid figures.
For most member of the audience, the performance of the Shostakovich Piano Trio in E Minor will remain a glowing – albeit tragic – expression of the highest caliber. Highly learned in style and rife with counterpoint taken from Bach in procedure and Bartok in expressive anguish, the Trio opened with a mordant fugato from Tanja Tetzlaff’s cello in high harmonics, the violin’s entrance in the middle register, and Vogt’s keyboard in the bass. In sonata form, the melancholy of the music suggested a potent requiem for the recently deceased friend of the composer, Ivan Sollertinsky, scholar and critic. Add to this sadness the sheer horrors of WW II and the discovery of Nazi atrocities against Russian Jewry. The severity of the procession could be grueling, given the pungent attacks on the instruments, particularly acerbic from Christian Tetzlaff. The ensuing Scherzo in F-sharp had the driven fury of a machine gun, a danse macabre whose middle section in G Major proffered faint relief from grim reality. The Largo reverted even further into classical procedure, progressing in the form of an intense passacaglia (B-flat Minor) in five parts, grievous and resonant with –- at first, eight — piano chords from Mussorgsky, cruel and tolling a paradise forever lost. Increasingly, a la Bartók, the music congealed in the key of B as the dominant for E Minor in order to segue to an even more grotesque conclusion. Christian Tetzlaff’s violin set the tone for the Allegretto – Adagio with pizzicato figures that would increasingly assume klezmer or Jewish folk traits, here in Haydn’s favorite sonata-rondo format. That Shostakovich consistently denounced Soviet anti-Semitism has long been a motif in his compositions –- and doubtless a factor in the performers’ consciousness in terms of their encore’s dedicatee. Simply overpowered by the combination of the beautiful and the sinister in such masterful union, the last, punishing chords from the Tetzlaff Trio were first embraced by awed dumbfounded silence – only to erupt in unanimous, standing ovation from a dazzled audience.
The final work of the program proper was Dvořák’s Piano Trio in F Minor, Op. 65. The work reveals equal influences of the dark Brahms chamber music and the F Minor Trio of Czech compatriot Zdeněk Fibich (1872). More severely dramatic than the typical Dvořák chamber work, the piece no less reveals, at the last, that folk-tendency to make the musical equivalent of a fable’s moral, “and so, my children,” which infiltrates late Dvořák style. The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, drove on with bitter restlessness, especially given Vogt’s intrusive, even punishing, piano attacks. The scope of the sonority often became expansive, “symphonic” in character, another instrumental requiem, as such. To relieve some tension, Dvorak inserts a martial, syncopated Scherzo in C-sharp Minor, whose middle section allowed some degree of repose. Cellist Tanja Testzlaff had her finest moments in the soaring Poco adagio slow movement, a truly inspired, heartfelt melody. Something of the cyclic form invests the finale, Allegro con brio, in which the various cross-rhythms converge in folk character without ever fully evolving into a Czech furiant. The dark hues of this impressive opus found some solace in bit of waltz-tune that emerges, twice, in the course of its tragic wanderings. Dvorak then, at the extended coda, returns to the opening motif of movement one, sweet remembrance, only to have the last thrusts of fate sweep all consolation away.