July 26, 2017

Lysander Piano Trio Brings French Elegance to Richardson Auditorium

The repertory for orchestral trio includes music for almost every combination of instruments imaginable, but especially for piano, violin and cello.  The Lysander Piano Trio, formed at the Juilliard School, is less than ten years old, but is nevertheless a major ensemble player on the chamber music scene.  The Lysander Trio came to Princeton last Tuesday night for a concert at Richardson Auditorium which showed that the appeal of these three instruments together has never faded, from the time of Mozart to the present day.  

Pianist Liza Stepanova, violinist Itamar Zorman, and cellist Michael Katz performed five works dating after the mid-19th century and representing several regions of Europe and the United States.  Like many composers of the 19th century, the Spaniard Enrique Granados was inspired by the visual arts, in particular the paintings of Francisco Goya. Granados’ opera Goyescas, presented at the Metropolitan Opera in 1915, apparently required extensive scene change music, and Granados composed intermezzo to provide an interlude while the stage crew did their work.  Twentieth-century Catalonian cellist Gaspar Cassadó later arranged intermezzo for piano trio, and from the outset of Tuesday night’s concert, the Lysander Trio brought out the drama and grace in the music. Intermezzo began jarringly, with short bass notes on the piano and an elegant counter-melody in the violin.  Ms. Stepanova continually watched the other two musicians carefully, and the three players together well conveyed the music’s Spanish dance influence.

A PhD graduate of Princeton University, Gilad Cohen has composed in a number of genres, with an imaginative approach to musical inventiveness. This past year, the Lysander Piano Trio commissioned Mr. Cohen for a chamber piece, and the resulting Around a Cauldron drew its inspiration from the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  In a sort of musical fan fiction, Mr. Cohen created seven miniature movements depicting the three witches sitting around their cauldron in a dark forest in the middle of the night. In this work, Mr. Cohen captured the bubbling witches’ brew and sinister cackles in a creative and accessible way.  Mr. Katz’s jazzy cello set a scary scene in the opening of the work, with an ostinato leading to a rich and spirited melody. Precise piano fragments reflected flying creatures around the cauldron, as the seven movements of this piece blended together in a continuous flowing stream.  A unison line between violin and cello smoothly shifted by microtones against spooky keyboard passages.  Mr. Zorman’s sharp violin strokes definitely conjured up spirits, aided by Ms. Stepanova’s innovative piano part.

It was fitting that a work inspired by witches be followed by a Rhapsody by Franz Liszt, whose music was so difficult it was considered by some to be demonic. Originally composed for piano, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in E-flat Major was transcribed by the composer himself for piano trio. Beginning with a forceful statement from the piano, Liszt’s Rhapsody initially featured a gentle dialog between violin and cello.  A rhapsody by nature is free form, and the quirky and off-beat passages of this piece would have fit in well around the cauldron of the previous Cohen work.  The flexibility and nimbleness of Ms. Stepanova’s playing was most notable, as the Lysander Trio brought out well the gypsy flair of the music, speeding up toward the end in a typically Liszt fashion to a demonic and virtuosic close.

The Trio devoted the second half of the concert to music of the French Impressionistic period, with a particular musical treat in the one-movement D’un matin de printemps of Lili Boulanger, whose short life was overshadowed by that of her legendary pedagogue sister Nadia Boulanger, but whose music was no less important.  Ms. Stepanova showed a particularly delicate touch in conveying raindrops on the piano against a sweet melody from Mr. Zorman on violin and a smooth cello melody from Mr. Katz.  Boulanger composed this piece in three different arrangements, and the piano trio version showed the close ties Boulanger had to the muted orchestral effects of the early 20th century, which were well conveyed by the Lysander musicians.

The French master of this period was no doubt Maurice Ravel, whose 1914 Piano Trio in A Minor is considered a major work for this combination of players.  Composed on the brink of World War I (Ravel actually sped up work on the piece so he could enlist in the army), this Piano Trio incorporated jazz, musical pointillism, and a bit of Parisian gaiety.  Ravel deliberately set the piano and violin parts very low in the register of these instruments to bring out the cello melodies, and often Ms. Stepanova played with just the left hand.  The third movement in particular was marked by a sweet duet between the strings, and like many of Ravel’s orchestral works, a musical sunrise shone light on the work (and performance) as a whole.  An encore by Czech composer and violinist Josef Suk displayed majestic piano chords and luxurious violin lines to the very enthusiastic audience at Richardson to bring the musical evening to a close.

The final concert of the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts series will be on Wednesday, July 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium, featuring the Argus Quartet.  Tickets are free and are available online by visiting www.tickets.princeton.edu/online.