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Trio Con Brio Copenhagen at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jul 1st, 2018

Soo-Jin Hong, Bethany Pietroniro (page turner), Jens Elvekjaer, Soo-Kyung Hong

Anticipation for this concert of Trio Con Copenhagen welled in my throat. There were two pieces I very much wanted to hear. I was, however, unfamiliar with the first piece on the program, Phantasmagoria for violin, cello and piano (2007) by the Danish composer Bent Sørensen (b. 1958). I began on the wrong foot: I decided to listen to a recoding on my laptop. While it is bad manners and slattern judgment to judge a work from a recording, and even worse to listen to music from a laptop speaker, I succumbed to curiosity and did so in advance of the concert—a bad move.  

Sørensen says that he wrote the last movement of five first then worked backwards. This was a meditative piece that began with what sounded like a violin crying. The first movement sounded like a depiction of infancy. Then we were on to the joys of childhood, adolescent struggle, adult confusion, and satisfaction—all in a slow meditative pace. Sørensen wrote that the work “is a shadow play in darkness, where contours of persons and music, voices and instruments—create adventures behind each other.” This was autobiographical reflection with a mellow glow, slightly in the vein of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” A recording is merely a shadow: this is a work that requires live performance, and yet is that not the situation with all music? Concerts are the real thing, recordings mere shadows. Phatasmagoria deserves close attention because it contains no fireworks. A deeply moody work, it demands introspection amid its pauses, whisperings, and reflective meditation.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, no. 2 is perhaps Beethoven’s most delightful work. Dedicated to Countess Anna Maria von Erdödy, it appears to be a coded marriage proposal to the patron in whose house Beethoven resided. The first movement opens with a slow shyness and ends with a questioning, exploring spirit. The second movement swells with charming infatuation and romance. The third movement includes a lullaby as if imagining the delight of progeny. And yet a host of musical motifs are held back while their relationships remain opaque. Until the final movement, when all is made clear: the excitement of declaration binds the whole work together in a celebration of intoxicating love triumphant. Perhaps the Countess did not understand what Beethoven was saying to her in this, his most optimistic composition.

This became an ugly chapter of Beethoven’s life. Shortly thereafter, Beethoven discovered that his manservant was receiving substantial remuneration for providing the Countess with sexual satisfaction. In towering rage, he departed the mansion and rented a room in a brothel. Beethoven never had any luck with the ladies he fancied. Although this episode in his ever-tragic life was traumatic, he was finally being understood by a few critics, especially the influential author E.T.A. Hoffman, who wrote music criticism before he penned his most famous works.

And this performance?  Jens Elvekjaer on piano led with formidable pacing that highlighted Beethoven’s rollicking joy with glissando expostulations and impish charm. Soo-Kyung Hong on cello bestowed a resonant surety as if the cello were an approving father, while Soo-Jin Hong on violin registered the imaginary delight of the beloved. If you ever want a friend who fears the majesty and profundity of Beethoven to appreciate the master, this is the delightful Allegro and Allegretto sweep that will allow any skeptic to fall in love with the naïve spirit of Beethoven.

Anton Arsenky’s First Piano Trio in D minor, op. 32 (1884) was his first substantial success at the age of twenty-three. The trio shimmers with the laughing brilliance of an eccentric gadfly. The long opening Allegro-Adagio supplies an enigmatic, autumnal elegy for the Russian landscape. The following Scherzo appears to celebrate the pranks of winter amid Russian folk song and sledding scales with bubbling piano figurations of indoor amusements. Then the third movement Adagio turns wickedly satiric against foreign styles of music with Springtime mocking of Saint-Saëns that morphs into a goofy Austrian waltz, as well gibing against other composers, yet all in good, irrepressible fun. While the music soars affirmatively in high romanticism—Soo-Jin Hong on her Guarini violin was astonishing—a hint of modernism appears in Arensky’s slide-show panorama approach. The Summertime Finale in full bloom wraps all the loose, disparate digressions up, much in the manner of the Beethoven trio just played, in brilliant summation and peak excitement.  

While Rimsky-Korsakov disapproved of his former pupil Arensky (due to his drinking and gambling) and banned Arensky from his musical gatherings, Arensky did subsequently write a few enduring quartets.

This was a marvelous concert: all three musical offerings freighted autobiographical material metamorphosed into art; each featured a knotty, exultant conclusion that bound divergent musical motifs with surprise endings. They played with a taut, confident unity that was modestly telepathic.