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CHAMBER REVIEW

SF Piano Trio Following Encore Jan. 19 in Occidental

BEETHOVEN FEATURED IN SF TRIO'S OCCIDENTAL CONCERT

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, January 19, 2020

Conventional repertoire in uncommonly good performances highlighted the San Francisco Piano Trio’s Jan. 19 concert in the Occidental Center for the Arts.

Haydn’s No. 44 Trio (Hob. XV:28) came from late in his long career, when he was in and out of London, and received a sparkling reading that featured pianist Jeffrey Sykes’ stylish scale playing and good ensemble throughout the three movements. It was the first time Classical Sonoma has heard the Center’s new piano, replacing a small instrument that had dead bass strings and inadequate power. The newer instrument had a “wet” tonal character that Mr. Sykes, with careful pedal, made the delight of the E Major Trio’s energy come brightly alive.

The long introduction to the Allegretto was played with steady rhythm, leading to many thematic repeats in the finale (Allegro) that was boisterous. Jean-Michel Fonteneau’s cello line acted mostly to support violinist Axel Strauss, who in turn seemed to accompany the fluent piano part. But that’s always present in Haydn’s piano trios, and the San Francisco gave the music life and charm.

Charm was mostly missing from the Brahms C Minor Trio, Op. 101, which is dark and dramatic. Mr. Strauss’ introductory remarks from the stage made a historical comparison between Brahms and Tchaikovsky’s music, and it’s true that at the time of this Trio’s composition (1887) many musicians found Brahms’s music heavy, dense and often ponderous. The San Francisco met the challenges head on, never letting the demanding Allegro energetico become slack, but also emphasizing several moments of lyricism in the movement.

Rhythmic subtlety highlighted the wonderful Andante, poignantly played and in contrast with the grim force of the finale. Here Mr. Strauss and Mr. Fonteneau traded short solos and finally the work’s surging themes, so vigorously presented, moved to a surprising triumph in C Major. A masterpiece splendidly played that demanded audience concentration.

Following intermission the great trio masterpiece of Beethoven’s later years, the B Flat, Op. 97 (“Archduke”), occupied the entire second half. Judicious tempos were adopted in a straightforward reading that had fine ensemble, far removed from the classic Cortot-Thibaud-Casals “Archduke” recording where individual virtuosity prevails. String intonation was everywhere good. The Andante with at least four variations, mostly in D Major, was captivatingly played and the majestic themes had strong projection from the musicians.

In the concluding Allegro moderato Mr. Sykes played many pungent sforzandos, pushing the momentum that never obscured the clarity of the cello and violin lines. It was joyous and convincing.

Responding to a standing ovation from the capacity audience the San Francisco selected an encore: the scherzo from the Op. 1, No. 1, E Flat Trio. It had a fast and frothy performance, a harbinger perhaps of a tsunami of brilliant Beethoven performances to come in 2020, the composer’s 250th birthday being Dec. 17.