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Aleron Trio’s return to Old First

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Last May the Aleron Trio (pianist Teresa Yu, violinist Solenn Séguillon, and cellist Anne Suda) gave their Old First Concerts debut recital at Old First Church. Last night they returned to Old First with a program as diverse and stimulating as the one they had prepared for “introductory” purposes. They also tried an alternative approach to the overall organization of their program.

In their first appearance the most extended work, Antonin Dvořák’s Opus 90 trio in E minor filled the entire second half of the program. This extended study of radical mood swings expressed through the dumka folk form followed a first half in which spirited wit was the primary currency. Last night it was the first half that was devoted to a single extended work, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 97 trio in B-flat major (“Archduke”); and the lighter fare filled the second half of the evening.

Opus 97 was completed in 1811, making it very much a “middle period” composition; but, in many respects, it is just as much a forward-looking piece. Most important is that it is one of the early ventures into an extended time scale. The Opus 55 symphony in E-flat major (“Eroica”) had experimented with a major prolongation of the opening movement, along with an adventurous pursuit of variations-on-a-theme down unexpected (and extended) paths, back in 1803. However, in 1811 Beethoven shifted his focus of prolongation to the slow movement, once again using variations as his primary vehicle. In the resulting Andante cantabile ma però moto, Beethoven revealed his capacity to create the feeling of time standing still, a talent that would reveal itself on many occasions in the music of his “late period.”

Aleron captured just the right quality of mood in this movement (as they had previously done with the “dumka spirit”). They executed this movement as if it were the heart and soul of the entire composition, which may well have been what Beethoven had intended it to be. In this context one may thus consider the opening movement salutatory and the closing valedictory, both conducted with the best of good-natured spirits. The opening measures of the first movement give the performers the perfect was to say “this is who we are,” before launching into the relatively traditional approaches of thematic exposition and development. The final movement, on the other hand, amounts to a “summing up,” in which those good spirits revert to some of the prankishness that can be dated back to the Opus 1 piano trios (the first of which was used to open the Aleron debut recital).

Most unique, however, may have been the approach to the relatively brief scherzo of the second movement. Aleron selected a tempo closer to the pace of a waltz than to the rhythmic intensity of a scherzo, and Yu dashed off many of the more pianistic figures as if they were destined to find their way into one of the waltzes of Frédéric Chopin. There was no affectation about this approach. Rather, it emerged as a strategy to loosen things up a bit between the longer-scale first and third movements and to “settle down” the listener in preparation for the revelatory journey of that third movement. The result was a well-considered and emotionally compelling treatment of Opus 97 in its entirety, allowing the listener to appreciate the full significance behind the deserved reputation this composition has in the chamber music repertoire.

After such an experience, the audience certainly deserved a lighter side for the second half of the evening; and that side had several fascinating twists. The first selection was “Trio sur les melodies populaires irlandaises,” a “trio based on popular Irish songs.” The fascinating side is that the composer, Frank Martin, was Swiss. The Irish motivation came from the heritage of the American patron, who had commissioned the work; making for circumstances a bit similar to those in which Beethoven had prepared his own settings of Irish folk songs. However, while Beethoven produced what amounted to “salon transcriptions,” Martin used his source material as seeds from which he then cultivated his own wild varieties of flamboyant flowers. Every now and then he would allow the listener a peek or two at the “Irish roots;” but he would then venture into lush embellishments making virtuoso demands on all three performers. Aleron offered a solid account of this highly imaginative score, which definitely deserves further exposure.

Martin’s trio was followed by a piano trio arrangement of Ástor Piazzolla’s “Primavera porteña,” the “spring” movement from his Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (four seasons of Buenos Aires). This suite of tangos was original scored for a quintet of violin (or viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón (Piazzolla’s instrument). Aleron’s account of spring was given a lively execution, capturing much of the spirit of a tango combo in a Buenos Aires café. That café spirit then carried over into the encore for the evening, a repeat performance of Paul Schoenfield’s 1985 trio, “Café Music,” which was definitely the wildest ride offered by Aleron’s debut recital and the perfect way to end an evening that had covered so much ground which such masterful execution.

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