The piano trio is an ensemble well equipped for chamber music scrimmage. Unlike the cohesive string quartet, which tends to draw together like-minded and like-instrument players into long-lasting marriages, piano trios are seldom full-time enterprises. Instead, the most scintillating threesomes tend to be gatherings of star players who get together for the occasional bout of competitive Beethoven or Tchaikovsky as a kind of musical equivalent of poker.
The latest such all-star venture has been started by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who has gathered together pianist Yefim Bronfman and cellist Lynn Harrell as part of the Perspective series she is overseeing at Carnegie Hall this season. Their first performance was in Montreal on Saturday; the second was Carnegie Hall on Tuesday; the third, in the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge on Thursday night.
These players are three distinct personalities, and none entirely what he or she seems. But already, this is one of the great piano trios.
Slender and glamorous, Mutter produces a violin tone that glistens like molten platinum but solidifies into adroitly shaped musical phrases solid as concrete buildings. Round and majestic, Bronfman is the Mt. Fuji of pianists. He radiates majestic calm — until he reminds you that he is a volcano.
With an avuncular warmth and Buddha-like presence, Harrell appeared the most mellow of the three. At 71, he is the oldest (Mutter is 51 and Bronfman is 57). The cello is the least acoustically penetrating of the trio's instruments, and he never pushed it. Yet he unflappably matched whatever his highly virtuosic young partners threw his way, and under it all had the quality of being a guiding light.
For the Thursday night gathering in Northridge, Bronfman cagily threw out the first card. As if attempting to catch the others unaware and begin with the upper hand, he started the jaunty solo piano opening of Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio as he sat down, not waiting for Mutter and Harrell to even ready their instruments.
They hurriedly jumped in where they were supposed to, at the end of the sixth bar, a few seconds later. Nothing, musically, was amiss. Mutter had a sly smile and Harrell, as he held a long F in his upper register, a bemused look. They knew what Bronfman was up to, and they happily played along.
The "Archduke" was, overall, slightly subdued. Beethoven clearly meant the piano to lead much of the time (the last time the composer played the piano in public was in the "Archduke"), but Bronfman refrained from overstatement. Tempos were often very fast, and details were subtly shaded.
The slow movement was magical. The "Archduke," Beethoven's Opus 96, is usually ranked as coming near the end of the composer's middle period. But as the tempo of the slow movement's series of variations get slower, the mystical late Beethoven style unexpectedly begins to steal in. Mutter, Harrell and Bronfman became here a remarkable one in creating an atmosphere of trance.
Tchaikovsky's big Piano Trio in A-Minor on the second half of the program was necessarily more rapturous. There are many passages where the violin and cello trade off melodic lines, and Mutter and Harrell responded as Carnatic Indian musicians might, each mimicking, while at the same time slightly outdoing, a slight turn of phrase from the other.
They also had Bronfman to contend with. Here, when Tchaikovsky allowed, he exploded, forcefully throwing his full weight onto the keyboard, seemingly oblivious to the Valley's seismic vulnerability. There were there-he-goes-again looks from Mutter and Harrell, who then demonstrated they could handle whatever was dealt them.
Tchaikovsky's trio is a chamber-music monster that ends with a half-hour set of variations, hardly mystical like Beethoven, but rather a series of entertaining scenic vignettes, and each was made a delight. A fugue was given the intensity of Bach. The massive, funereal finale and coda were symphonic in scope and bracing sound.
The Tchaikovsky is a powerful work but not quite profound chamber music. Yet the performance made a profound statement about relationships, power and society. Three distinct soloists demonstrated that they could interact as individuals while playing with extraordinary accord. The point was not the sum being greater than the amazing parts; rather, the sum made each individual matter more.
Still, the job of Mutter, Bronfman and Harrell — who conclude their first tour this weekend in Santa Barbara, Phoenix and Sonoma — is not an easy one in distracted modern times. The Valley audience cheered, but so many people rushed out the second the Tchaikovsky was over that the trio did not include the Shostakovich encore it had played two nights earlier in Carnegie.