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Vienna Piano Trio

A walk in the moonlight, with a lighter step

April 3, 2012

The lush, perfumed chromaticism of Arnold Schönberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” is well known to concert audiences in its original 1902 scoring for string sextet and in the composer’s later arrangement for string orchestra. This expressionist, protomodern landmark appeared in a third guise as the centerpiece of a concert by the excellent Vienna Piano Trio, April 1 in First Unitarian-Universalist Church. The San Antonio Chamber Music Society sponsored the local tour stop.

The pianist and Schönberg disciple Eduard Steuermann arranged "Transfigured Night," as it's called in English, for piano trio in 1932. That arrangement was not performed publicly until after its belated publication in 1979, and the Vienna Piano Trio’s performance was my first hearing.

It proved a very different creature in some ways from the string-sextet original -- more lithe and energetic, more transparent. It is as opulent as the original, but less densely overgrown. With the piano timbre added to the mix, the harmonies sound fresher. The piano trio version has the virtue of clarity, but it’s fair to wonder if the sometimes smothering density of the all-strings versions is essential to the work’s point.

At any rate, the performance was terrific. Most notable was cellist Matthias Gredler, who impressed with both the gorgeous depth and resonance of his tone and the intensity of his interpretation -- especially his ferocious pizzicati. Violinist Wolfgang Redik was only a shade less involving. Pianist Stefan Mandl evoked some very nice colors.

The program opened with Beethoven’s early Variations in E-flat for Piano Trio. The three players were astonishingly unified in their statement of the staccato skeletal theme, and true to Beethoven’s early style throughout.  Mr. Mendl’s crisp wit and Mr. Gredler’s big dynamic contrasts were especially welcome.
The finale was a huge, overflowing account of Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor.

Mike Greenberg