Sitkovetsky Trio
Rachmaninoff / Smetana / Schubert

Zimmermannhaus, Brugg, 2019-05-03

4-star rating

2019-05-07 — Original posting


Sitkovetsky Trio (© Vinci Ng)
Sitkovetsky Trio (© Vinci Ng)

Introduction — The Sitkovetsky Trio

In 2007, three musicians of the Yehudi Menuhin School in Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey, England formed a piano trio, named Sitkovetsky Trio (see also Wikipedia). The name is that of the ensemble’s violinist: Alexander Sitkovetsky (*1983, see also Wikipedia). Sitkovetsky was born in Moscow, now a British citizen. Alexander Sitkovetsky is the nephew of the Russian violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky (*1954).

The pianist of the trio is the Chinese artist Wu Qian (*1984 in Shanghai, see Wikipedia), another founding member. Alexander Sitkovetsky and Wu Qian also appear as a duo.

For the first years after the foundation, the ensemble’s cellist was Leonard Elschenbroich (*1985, Germany). In 2014, after 7 years, Elschenbroich was succeeded by the British cellist Richard Harwood (*1979). Finally, in 2017, the latter left the trio again. His successor is Isang Enders (*1988, see also Wikipedia). Enders is German, born in Frankfurt/Main, into a German-Korean family. With this, the formation that we heard in concert consists of

  • Alexander Sitkovetsky, violin (*1983)
  • Isang Enders, cello (*1988)
  • Wu Qian, piano (*1984)

Setting, Venue

Another concert in the Zimmermannhaus in Brugg, almost exactly two months after the previous one on 2019-03-02. This concert (the last one for this season) was labeled “Chamber Music VI”. The small venue with its just over 100 seats under the roof of the historic building was almost sold out.

If you look back at previous concert reports from this venue, you will note changes in the decoration: the concert venue, as well as (primarily) the floor below also holds visual arts exhibits (paintings, photos, sculptures). These change every few weeks. The current exhibition runs under the title “Erdwürmer” (Earth Worms) and features art works by the Swiss artists Marianne Engel (*1972) and Simon Ledergerber (*1977). This exhibit opened on 2019-04-29 and runs until 2019-06-09.

My wife and I had “our usual seats” in the center last row (thanks to the organizers for the opportunity to take photos!). All pictures below are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).

Program

The piano was a mid-size Bösendorfer Model 225 grand piano, with fully open lid.


Rachmaninoff: Trio élégiaque No.1 in G minor

1892, at age 19, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) wrote his Trio élégiaque No.1 in G minor. This clearly is a youth work. Rachmaninoff never assigned it an opus number. It appeared in print only in 1947. The elegiac nature of the single movement made people suggest that it was an early elegy for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893). However, at that time, the latter was still in good health, so this attribution is at least doubtful, despite the closing funeral march:

Lento lugubre — Più vivo — Appassionato — Risoluto — Tempo I — Più vivo — Appassionato — Alla marcia funebre

The following year, 1893, then definitely after Tchaikovsky’s death, Rachmaninoff wrote his Trio élégiaque in D minor, op.9 in three movements. This is now referred to as Trio élégiaque No.2.

The concert leaflets (which also served as tickets) just included information about the artists on the back, plus the list of works performed, and the movements. Isang Enders kindly started the concert with some explanations around all works in the program. He did that in clear, easy-to-understand language (high German, of course): most appreciated! I have not tried memorizing these explanations in full, but for this review I collected some biographic information for each of the works from Wikipedia.

The Performance

Lento lugubre —

The composition “sneaks in” from silence, with a soft ppp tremolando on an open fifth, using empty strings on the cello. The violin then joins in on the same tones. This “hollow”, “naked” interval leaves it open whether we are in major or minor tonality. Even the rhythm is initially unclear. Only in bar 5, the piano adds full chords. These set the lugubre (somber) atmosphere, gradually building up volume and despair, up to bar 20, where (after a first climax) the cello introduces an elegiac cantilena.

It initially felt as if the musicians were gradually “finding together” in coordination and sonority. However, it soon became clear that this wasn’t the ensemble’s playing, but Rachmaninoff’s music which deliberately reaches clarity only in the course of the introduction. And the melody: so typical of Rachmaninoff already—beautiful!

Più vivo — Appassionato —

The initial, melodic theme doesn’t last very long. In bar 36, the piano introduces a new theme, then the string instruments join in with yet another melody: clearly, a youth work, focusing on ideas rather than development. However, this also gave us an opportunity to observe the musicians, to see how they interacted. And more importantly: how they played together.

The annotation for the violin melody reads Con anima. Sitkovetsky translated this into a broad, romantic vibrato, “spiced up” with occasional portamenti. He did that demonstratively, up to the limit in strength, but not in excess. It was fitting the character of the music. And the cello matched this later, in the second Con anima segment (bars 198ff).

Interactions

Clearly, the two founding members, Alexander Sitkovetsky and Wu Qian, were intimately familiar with each other’s musical intents, as well as with the repertoire. They didn’t need to rely upon close eye contact. Amazingly, also the cellist, Isang Enders, with the ensemble for just two years, was fitting seamlessly into the team, as if he had been with the others for ages. The string players were usually facing the audience, only occasionally turned towards the others, e.g., to coordinate for a new beginning, or a new tempo. Apart from that, they typically interacted through peripheral vision only. The same with the pianist.

Interestingly, as a listener, one could not really identify a clear leader in the team: a striking example of true teamwork! Experience and mutual familiarity essentially replaced the need for leadership, except for the occasional requirements of specific situations.

Risoluto — Tempo I — Più vivo —

One of the most amazing aspects of the entire concert, however, was in the sound. Both string instruments featured a warm, characterful tone. Most striking: the low strings of the violin, which often had an interesting “rough”, very pleasantly (!) “scratchy” quality, most notably in the Tempo rubato section (bars 96ff). The violin often had a slightly “covered” sound quality. At least once (in the Risoluto, bars 123ff), I caught myself checking whether Sitkovetsky was playing with a mute—he didn’t. That’s just an observation, not a criticism of the instrument’s sound quality or the violinist’s playing. Never, ever did the violin sound pointy or shrill on the high strings, nor of course thin.

The cello perfectly matched the sound of the violin part. Its tone was well-balanced, of course singing, but never exceedingly bulbous in the low register.

Overall, I had the impression that the ensemble did not aim to produce a perfectly merged / fused, let alone ultra-polished sound. Rather, the instruments kept their individuality. The acoustics in the small venue may have contributed to this as well. Musically, though, the trio performed with exceptional coherence, with joint expression, and out of one single mind.

Balance

Wu Qian obviously knew very well how to deal with the instrument: not only didn’t she have the slightest issues handling the slightly heavier Bösendorfer mechanics in virtuosic passages (such as later in the Schubert trio), she also was able to control the volume of the instrument, kept the perfect balance with her colleagues: never, even in virtuosic passages, did she cover a string instrument, also pizzicato on violin or cello remained perfectly audible. Momentarily, though, where the music asks for it (e.g., in the short eruption in bar 163, prior to the Tempo I), Wu Qian certainly was able to demonstrate that the instrument is able offer brilliance in sound as well.

More than in earlier concerts in this venue, I now noted the distinct, slightly matte, but warm, never obtrusive, internally well-balanced sonority of the Bösendorfer. With that, the piano was a perfect, harmonious match to the two string instruments. It’s amazing to hear how much the sound of a grand piano can depend on an artist‘s playing!

Appassionato — Alla marcia funebre

The Appassionato, albeit short, feels like a broad, exhaustive climax, leading into the coda, a short funeral march with drum rolls and dark beats marking a stepping pace in the piano, while violin and cello play in octaves, an elegiac, melancholic, if not sad melody: very atmospheric!

The Composition

Clearly, the Trio élégiaque No.1 doesn’t quite match up to Rachmaninoff’s mature works: it lacks some thematic and structural coherence, and the piano part is far less demanding than in the composer’s later works: the texture is often homophonic, but “full-fingered”. In atmosphere and harmonies, though, the work already is 100% Rachmaninoff’s personal style and character. It was definitely more than just worth the experience!

Rating: ★★★★


Smetana: Piano Trio in G minor, op.15, JB 1:64 (1855 / 1857)

The “tragic connection” in Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No.1 in G minor may be unclear. However, Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884) definitely went through several tragedies in his life: in 1854, his second daughter died of tuberculosis, and just a year later, 1855, his eldest daughter, aged 4, died of scarlet fever. In memory of that daughter, Smetana wrote his Piano Trio (Klavírní Trio) in G minor, op.15, JB 1:64 (1855 / 1857). It comes in three movements:

  1. Moderato assai — Più animato — Tempo I
  2. Allegro, ma non agitato — Alternativo I: Andante — Tempo I — Alternativo II: Maestoso — Tempo I
  3. Finale: Presto — Meno presto, tranquillo assai — Più mosso — Meno presto, tranquillo assai — Più mosso — Grave, quasi marcia — Tempo I

Sadly, the above two incidents were not the end of Smetana’s sorrows: in 1856, a fourth daughter died, soon after she was born. His wife also contacted tuberculosis (she died in 1859), and in the same year, he lost a close friend. Later, in 1874, the composer’s both ears turned deaf.

Fortunately, as Isang Enders also explained in his opening remarks, Smetana’s trio isn’t just all dark and depressing, but also full of happy memories about the deceased child.

The Performance

I. Moderato assai —

Here now, the music itself moved into the center of the listener’s attention. However, the performance of course remained as compelling and fascinating as in Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque.

Rachmaninoff’s trio may have been expressive and highly romantic. Here, however, Smetana took expressivity and emotionality onto an entirely different level. Already the initial, strongly lamenting violin solo on the G-string is setting the tone for the extreme emotions in this composition. The cello followed up in canon-like fashion. The chordic piano part joins in, and within few bars, the movement reaches a first energico climax in bar 33.

Più animato — Tempo I

But soon, the mood changes, a gentle, innocent, even serene folk melody on the cello follows for a few bars. The violin then takes this over, intensifying the expression. At the Più animato, the strings present joyful, almost exuberant folk melodies over a lightly galloping piano accompaniment, developing into a glorious, majestic climax.

And the mood suddenly changes again: a short window with serene memories from a happy past, followed again by an energetic episode, gradually evolving into emotional turmoil and drama: a prime example of coherence in performance! Another episode follows, multifaceted, with a series of pictures / memories, moving up into the sky (heaven?) on the piano—Pausa lunga (death?)—and the initial, lamenting theme returns on the violin. It’s not a simple recap, but a further evolution of the dramatic tale in broad expressive arches with multiple climaxes, returning memories associated with most intense emotions, finally evolving into a truly Slavonic accelerando closure.

Throughout the movement, I noted Wu Qian’s masterful piano playing, as well as the obvious, superb musical coherence within the ensemble.

II. Allegro, ma non agitato — Alternativo I: Andante — Tempo I — Alternativo II: Maestoso — Tempo I

This is some kind of a Scherzo (in 2/4 time) with two Alternativo inserts. The opening and the ending of the first Allegro part feel eerie, almost ghastly, hushing by. The central part is melodic, in a distinctly Slavonic atmosphere, both joyful and melancholic, with syncopes and the occasional “Folk glissando / portamento“.

Alternativo I: This is more pensive, often hesitant, swaying, with perfect dynamics and balance also with the cello pizzicato; remembrance, loneliness, forlornness—an interpretation from one single mold! Same for the Tempo I: violin and cello sounded like one and the same instrument when they played in octaves. Here, the sound mixed / merged perfectly!

Alternativo II: At the end of the central Tempo I segment, there is a general rest—and a sudden, strong ritardando. The music modulates from G minor to a majestic E♭ major: self-affirming, a fresh start in confidence, looking forward? That can’t stay: memories with gentle feelings of love return for a moment. Another, heroic segment follows, then the mood swings back to loving memories on the piano, now in a more melancholic mood. The movement doesn’t end happy, rather giving in to memories in a mourning mood. A true Kaleidoscope of feelings and moods!

III. Finale: Presto — Meno presto, tranquillo assai — Più mosso — Grave, quasi marcia — Tempo I

High tension music in the initial Presto! The annotation in bar 103 is dolcissimo. It didn’t really feel that way. Rather, it seemed to take the remaining 15 Presto bars for the music to calm down from the excitement. I can’t see how one could possibly make bars 103ff feel “most sweet” in an instant! Only in the Meno presto, tranquillo assai, when the cello introduces a loving, intense melody (con espressione), the music indeed feels dolcissimo.

The electrifying tension returns at the Tempo I, now with a virtuosic pizzicato, moving forward. It then evolves into a whirling dance, almost bursting from passion. In an instant, though, the Meno presto, tranquillo assai returns happy memories, turning melancholic again in the Più mosso: giving in to reality. And indeed: a veritable funeral march follows, very passionate, intense, ardent. The mood swings continue: a transition to another heroic segment. The agitated, high-tension theme returns—and a sudden ff ending in a bursting upward movement. It was fascinating to watch the artists jointly going through this rollercoaster of emotions—moving, compelling throughout!

One little question mark—not even a quibble: in the Più mosso segments, Smetana writes punctuated quavers over triplet accompaniment on the piano. I noted that these punctuated quavers were performed as triplets (quaver plus semiquaver). This must have been a conscious decision by the artists—and an understandable one.

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Smetana’s trio may be just as episodic as Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque—but with its strong emotionality, the drama, the expression, the moving eloquence, it leaves a much stronger, often overwhelming impression on the listener. Simply put: a masterwork!


Schubert: Piano Trio No.2 in E♭ major, op.100, D.929 (1827)

It wasnt’t before close to the end of his life that Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) turned towards the genre of piano trios. It is quite likely that he felt that this type of chamber music had been exhaustively covered by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). The confirmation for this: only after Beethoven’s death in March 1827, Schubert wrote his two piano trios. Piano Trio No.1 in B♭ major, op.99, D.898, was finished in 1828, published only in 1836, long after the composer’s death. the Piano Trio No.2 in E♭ major, op.100, D.929, dates from November 1827 and was published in late 1828. shortly before Schubert’s death. Apparently, it was among the few of his late compositions that Schubert heard performed before his death. The work has four movements and lasts around 50 minutes.

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante con moto
  3. Scherzo: Allegro moderato — Trio — Scherzo da Capo
  4. Allegro moderato (6/8) — L’istesso tempo (2/2)

The Performance

I. Allegro

This movement confirmed my earlier findings: not an interpretation aiming at perfect, polished sound. Rather, an expressive soundscape, full of character, resulting from a joint, unified effort! The fact that this music is almost 30 years older than Smetana’s by no means implies that it is easier to play! Actually, the piano part is highly virtuosic in the dramatic segments, and Wu Qian has the power, the virtuosity, and the endurance for a highly impressive performance. At the same time, the Lied-like segments require utmost subtlety. The delicacy in Wu Qian’s playing in the soft segments, especially her left hand, and her dynamic control in general were simply mind-boggling!

Towards the end of the exposition (which the trio of course repeated), cello and violin parts are intertwined. Here, it was virtually impossible to tell which was which! Needless to say that their unison playing was flawless. And also in the Schubert trio, the dynamic balance of the ensemble left nothing to wish for, throughout the performance.

Schubert’s development and recap parts are really extensive. It was admirable how well the artists managed to maintain the tension, the suspense throughout the long movement!

II. Andante con moto

Subtle agogics, very careful dynamics throughout, most notably on the piano. And also here, one often could think that one and the same person played both the violin and the cello. None of the musicians ever tried to dominate. The pace remained calm. Never, there was any (intentional of inadvertent) rushing. Yet, the tension persisted, throughout. It was excellent how the artists were able to capture the mood of this movement. This switching between serene Notturno atmosphere, desperate anxiety, urging, even rebellion at the fff climaxes, and back to a serene Lied, etc.

Schubert’s ending is far from the serene atmosphere in which the movement started: when the music seems to calm down, the cello intrudes with a menacing trill. The scene suddenly changes for a strange closure, an eerie mood that vanishes into ppp: did the harsh reality make a sudden, unexpected return?

A side-note: with me, the second phrase in the initial cello melody spontaneously evoked Gelsomina’s trumpet tune in the film “La Strada” by Federico Fellini (1920 – 1993). That may seem far-fetched, but I sensed similarities also in the atmosphere, the melancholy.

III. Scherzo: Allegro moderato — Trio — Scherzo da Capo

Schubert writes scherzando above the Scherzo theme. However, the music wasn’t anywhere near scherzoso. It wasn’t joking, rather creating an atmosphere of subtle melancholy, or perhaps a distant memory of playfulness? And also here, I admired Alexander Sitkovetsky’s discreet, inconspicuous playing. It was almost as if he wanted to lend the voice to Isang Enders at the cello?

The Trio appeared moody, with its violent dynamic swaying. And it wasn’t the late Franz Schubert, if there wasn’t this sudden, scary 2-bar general rest in the middle! For the artists, the trickier general rest is the one at the transition back to the Scherzo, which also involves a tempo change. Throughout the concert, I never felt even a trace uneasy about any of the transitions. They all felt absolutely “right”, natural.

IV. Allegro moderato — L’istesso tempo

Already in the first theme (6/8 time), the artists stayed alert, kept up the tension, with a subtle rubato (taking the dense, more dramatic moments a tad faster). The second theme (L’istesso tempo, 2/2) felt a tad faster, but I think that was just my impression (or maybe a very slight ritardando in the transition?). The ensemble still (!) played “at the edge of the chair”, continuing to build up suspense. When the 6/8 meter returns, Schubert unleashes the virtuosic demands, especially in the piano part, with its long semiquaver chains, which are also mirrored on the string instruments. Not surprisingly, the next section reminds of the composer’s last piano sonatas. Schubert takes the themes through a vast range of emotions, hereby constantly increasing the virtuosic demands on the piano part.

Despite the symphonic dimensions of this final movement, there was never even a slightly dull moment, the music kept breathing, and in all the virtuosity, the performance always aimed forward (without rushing!), maintained its tension. There was a slight broadening towards the coda. However, the music didn’t just die off: rather, Schubert ended with some intense, almost begging gestures: “Verweile doch!” (Stay, please!). Is it a coincidence that these last bars reminded me of moments from the “Archduke Trio” in B♭ major, op.97, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)???

Rating: ★★★★½

Sitkovetsky Trio, Brugg, 2019-05-03 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Sitkovetsky Trio, Brugg, 2019-05-03 (© Rolf Kyburz)


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