Music from Salem audiences have always enjoyed programs that incorporated some little-known works with staples of the repertoire. On Saturday night at Hubbard Hall, artistic director and violist Lila Brown had even more of a challenge in that scheduled trumpeter Douglas Myers had canceled.
Brown told the near-capacity crowd she’d come up with some interesting choices for violinist Ariadne Daskalakis, cellist Kari Ravnan and Brown herself to play: two of Bach’s Three-part Inventions arranged by Otty and Rattenbury and the Allegretto from Kodály’s Intermezzo.
For anyone who has taken piano lessons, the two Inventions, No. 1 and No. 8, were old friends. Bach was so clear in what he’d written that the lines played by three string instruments easily interwove and blended. The Inventions were also surprisingly short.
Inserted between was the Kodály, a romantic and sweet movement that with the plucking strings and softly interactive lines was like a pretty bauble.
The trio played with a good balance and blend of tones with unforced bows and gentle attacks. Pitch was occasionally off but there was a nice lift to the phrases.
George Onslow’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 20, changed the mood to one of drama from its opening chord. Pianist Nina Tichman told the crowd that Onslow (1784-1853) had been a French aristocrat, who had written 70 string quintets, some of which may have inspired Schubert. Beethoven and Schumann had also admired his work.
The trio, written for piano, violin and cello, was surprising on several levels, most especially for its romantically tinged melodies and harmonies. The four movements, which included a theme and variations-style second movement with five variations, were heavily pianistic and often shifted keys. Although the strings more often echoed or supported what the piano did, Onslow gave them more of a workout during the variations.
Tichman was agile, accurate and fluid in her part and kept a control over the dynamics and balance, especially in those passages that rippled and undulated under the strings’ long lines. The trio showed good ensemble and pitch and most often mirrored each other’s subtleties in phrases and nuances. Daskalakis and Ravnan played with rich tones.
The audience, which is always enthusiastic at MFS concerts, obliged heartily when the work ended in a whisper.
The big work on the second half was Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26. Written in 1862 when Brahms was 29, the quartet was an expansive, enigmatic, monumental and mature work that possibly was Brahms’ vow to defy dying at an early age, Brown said. The work’s sunny key, big sound and dynamic symphonic conception would certainly support this life-assertive claim. Although the piano part occasionally is soloistic, the strings have much to do and all the parts are difficult. He also inserted much romance, especially in the second movement’s lushly soaring melodies, and folk-inspired moments in playful passages in the last two movements.
The musicians played well and the ensemble work was solid. But this is a serious work that needs to float with a flow, which must be seamless. Too often the effort was noticeable. Too often the musical conversation was intense without subtlety, or was passionate without pungency. If the players played together more often, they might have possibly achieved a more consistent, delineated and soaring reading.
The last MFS concert is at 2 p.m. Sunday in a program of Debussy, Cage, Mozart and Ravel.