The Fabulous Horszowskis

L to R: Jesse Mills, Rieko Aizawa, and Ole Akahoshi (click for full image). Photo by Abby Wasserman.

Dynamic Trios in Mill Valley Chamber Music Concert

The Horszowski Trio brought the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society’s near-capacity audience to its feet Feb. 27 with sensitive and beautifully balanced ensemble playing. The music performed, piano trios by Smetana, Rebecca Clarke, and Arno Babadjanian, span 100 years and three cultures. The governing idea behind their program was to explore ethnic consciousness in piano trios that are underperformed and deserving of more exposure. Each trio was written when its composer was in their early 30s, which perhaps explains each work’s blend of youthful passion and compositional mastery.

The Trio, Jesse Mills, violin, cellist Ole Akahoshi, and pianist Rieko Aizawa, was making its MVCMS debut in the concert’s Mt. Tamalpais United Methodist Church.

Smetana’s Op. 15 G Minor Trio (1855), his sole piano trio, is known to express grief over the death of his musically precocious daughter Bedřiška. The solo violin began with an affecting lamentation motif that recurred throughout the Moderato assai first movement. The cello line joined in the lament while the piano played somber repeated chords. Each time the motif occurred its meaning shifted subtly from grief to rage to sweet nostalgia. The instruments’ voices were at times frantic, at times consumed with sorrow, helplessness, and despair. But also heard was music of mercy, gentleness, and wistful memory. Ms. Aizawa’s extended solo in this movement was lovely and sweet. Throughout the piece Mr. Mills’ exquisite phrasing, Mr. Akahoshi’s warm string sound, and Ms. Aizawa’s often pianistic brilliance were stellar, made for stellar ensemble. It was profoundly touching and never maudlin.

The second movement (Allegro, ma non agitato) began like a playful romp, with singing phrases. It was played with affecting rubato and its intimate harmonies glimmered in the air. An elegiac section, threaded with soft phrase sighs, led into a funeral march, interrupted by a gay motif that soon was extinguished like the flame of a candle.

Bringing Schubert to mind, the Presto Finale opened with a frantic musical gallop. The cello and violin stated the tender main theme and the piano performance glistened and glowed. Inevitably the mournful heartbeat of the funeral march reinstated itself, but at the conclusion of the piece there was a defiant, almost triumphal coda suggesting that love endures and triumphs over death.

British-born American Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was a celebrated violist and a composer admired by Vaughn-Williams and Ernest Bloch, but her compositional career suffered from the misogyny of the era. She stopped composing at age 50, having written more than 100 pieces and a popular and tonal Viola Sonata. Clarke’s E Flat-Major Trio from 1921 begins with palpable feelings of passion and anxiety. The violin and cello parts resonated with seeming dread while the piano line fluttered nervously. Mercifully ethereal Impressionist music entered and soft melodies wafted and emerged from a drone-like section. Cascading thematic lines were punctuated with emphatic piano bass notes that tolled like bells of doom.

In the second movement (Andante molto semplice) Mr. Mills stated a lyrical theme with a raw edge as the piano line punctuated and echoed it, and the cello and violin parts effortlessly joined. The music grew in intensity and its harmonies edged on dissonance. Musical tension built then retreated, and the violinist’s phrasing was lithe and agile to the movement’s end. The performance of the third movement began gaily with spritely string pizzicato, and there one heard the influence of the composer’s contemporary and teacher Bloch. There was the hint of Asia, pentatonic-scale folk music, filmy glissandos, gay prestos, broken chords, and intimate dialogues between cello and violin. Clarke’s trio came to a bright conclusion reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka.

Armenian composer Arno Babadjanian’s Trio in F-sharp minor (1952) was the afternoon’s other real find. Famous in Armenia, he is almost unknown here, and this trio is one of his shining works. Its eloquent first movement (Largo—Allegro espressivo—Maestoso) was performed majestically with warm melodies and perhaps with nods to the composer’s Armenian colleague Aram Khatchaturian’s music. The Horszowski’s reading possessed a vocal, conversational quality that blended snatches of Armenian folk melodies with a soaring bright and perfectly balanced sonority. The emphatic rhythms, close harmonies, slashing notes, and lyrical melodic lines were exhilarating. The second movement (Andante) was played gorgeously, opposing traces of imitated birdsong with sequences of piano chords. The cello line deftly continued the motif, and the movement ended in a dreamy fashion.

In the third Allegro vivacemovement dance rhythms were played in 5/8 meter, alternating with a graceful melodic statement from Mr. Akahoshi. Spritely pizzicato and languid legato playing led into a foot-stomping energy and a brief, emphatic coda.

The concert’s end found the audience, visibly moved, rising in unison to give the Horszowski a prolonged standing ovation.

Published at on March 4, 2022