Played with Tenderness and Fire
The MHS Review 401, VOL. 12, NO. 5 • 1988
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The Musical Heritage Society's release by the American Piano Trio offers us the rare pleasure of hearing two quite different works, one by Brahms and one by American composer Vincent Persichetti, for the unusual grouping of violin, cello, and piano.
The American Piano Trio is made up of Mitchell Andrews, Neil Weintrob, and Roger Malitz, all faculty members of Ball State University's School of Music in Muncie, Indiana. Andrews has been hailed as "one of our major pianists" by the New York Times, and has performed as a soloist and as a member of the well-known Marlboro Trio. Weintrob, a "phenomenal talent with technique to burn," in the words of the Philadelphia Inquirer, takes the violin chair, while cellist Malitz, a performer who has held chairs with several national and international orchestras, rounds out the trio.
The name of the trio sums up its mission: to present important chamber works from all eras that highlight the work of the pianist. The piano is often delegated to an accompanying role in the classical world, despite the fact that many composers are pianists, and despite the fact that the instrument possesses a marvelous range of possibilities. The American Piano Trio celebrates the piano's capabilities, without giving short shrift to the two other voices.
Johannes Brahms' Trio in B major, op. 8 is one of the composer's earliest works, originally written in late 1853-early 1854, but substantially revised in 1889 and 1891. Brahms was a talented pianist himself. In fact, it was skill as a pianist that first brought him to prominence. Upon hearing the 21-year-old play in 1854, Schumann was moved to compose his essay "New Paths," lauding the young pianist as one who "was called forth to give us the highest ideal expression of our time." Schumann recommended the as-yet unknown musician to a Leipzig-based music publisher, who was to publish this early sonata.
The four-movement sonata was written with the enthusiasm of a young man expressing his first musical ideas. The piece originally ran 1628 measures, and the opening Allegro con brio employed no less than five themes! An older Brahms, in stating that by reworking this material he "had not provided it with a wig, but had just combed and arranged its hair a little," was being slightly disingenuous; in all, 460 measures were pruned from the work, and several sections were edited or reworked entirely. Apparently, the composer was embarrassed by some of his youthful excesses. However, he need not have been ashamed of the skill displayed in this composition. He masterfully blends the three voices, and the piece offers an excellent showcase for the pianist, both as accompanist and solo voice. The work provides an excellent window into the German romantic style.
In contrast, Vincent Persichetti's Parable XXIII for violin, cello and piano, op. 150 is an example of 20th-century composing at its best. Persichetti wrote a series of "parables," for different instruments, that he described as "non-programmatic musical essays that convey a meaning indirectly by the use of comparisons or analogies. They are built upon a single germinal idea, often referring to another of my works.''
Parable XXIII shares as its inspiration with Parable XIII for clarinet an early "canto firmo" written by the composer. The piece is composed in one long movement, consisting of several sections that are played continuously. The range of emotions for the pianist is stunning, from the double-forte octaves of the first section ("Gravemente"), to the bouncy, ragtime-influenced second ("Velocemente") and fourth ("Capricciosamente") passages, to the somber waltz-like fifth and final section.
Persichetti, on hearing the American Piano Trio perform -this work in 1986, stated: "Your performance brought me unbounding joy. You played with tenderness and fire, and a concern for inner-voice mysteries." We are certain that listeners to this recording will agree.