Jokey American, sombre Czech

BRAVE NEW WORLDS

Sutherland Trio

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 24, 2015

Sutherland Trio (image: sutherlandtrio.com)
Sutherland Trio (image: sutherlandtrio.com)

Pairing the Ives Piano Trio with Dvorak’s  F minor No. 3 presented something of a surprise in this latest recital at the MRC from an estimable ensemble of Melbourne musicians: violin Elizabeth Sellars, cello Molly Kadarauch, piano Caroline Almonte.   While the Czech composer pours out a chain of luxuriant melodies tinged if not infused with folk-song suggestions, the American’s one essay in the form leavens his love of dissonance with a strong melodic current running through its outer movements, atypically diatonic in the concluding Moderato con moto where the spectre of 19th century Romanticism looms unexpectedly large.

It wouldn’t be Ives without contrasts and the trio’s central Presto makes a relentless, eventually unnerving amalgam of non-original melodic fragments that lead to a critical climax which exhausts the ears through simple informational overload reinforced by forceful dynamic levels.  Ives might have intended a brand of levity by naming the movement TSIAJ (This Scherzo is a joke) but the humour is fierce, a case of piling Pelion upon Ossa where the references to hymns and popular tunes weld into a massive complex, extraordinarily dense given the small sound resources employed.

Dvorak’s trio  stands as one of the master’s more dramatically consistent chamber music constructs, particularly for its substantial first movement’s grandiose sweep and developmental density.  Despite many caveats, the influence of Brahms remains consistent throughout; open to a page of the first Allegro‘s development and the actual physical aspect of the score makes you look twice.  Yes, you can also point to irregular metrical structures that the older writer would not have used but the textural variety offers many grounds for complementary comparison. Further, the writing for piano is often as clangorously dominant in effect as in an early-to-mid period Brahms chamber work.

The Sutherlands made fine exponents of the Ives trio,  Kadarauch giving the first movement’s opening duo section plenty of wide-ranging eloquence, followed in similar form by Sellars when her turn to outline the 27 bars of material came around.  For that helter-skelter scherzo, the effect was of diving in with suspenseful energy, the players beavering at their responsibilities without drawing breath.  This is the Ives sound as many people find it – ignoring the lashings of broad, singing simplicity to be found in the symphonies, violin sonatas, string quartets and tone sets sitting alongside the polytonal, polyrhythmic, poly-polyphonic, multi-textural collages of the Three Pieces in New England or the jagged piano writing of the Three Page and Concord Sonatas.  Here the impetus came from Almonte’s keyboard which, as required, often threw the two strings into low relief.

Ives moves into a less frenetic world for his finale, the language kept simple and accessible with lengthy paragraphs of interwoven mesh, the whole reaching the composer’s individual vision of the transcendental in a sequence of concluding variants on Rock of Ages, a meditation here played with care and requisite placidity: a passage that you wished could go on and on.

The Dvorak trio also enjoyed more of a clenched-teeth style of interpretation,  Almonte finding plenty of resonance in the outer movements, which featured passages where Kadarauch’s cello was kept well-recessed.  Still, you would be hard to please if you found the focal Poco adagio deficient: Sellars and Kadaurach combining in the canonic melody-lines with fine sympathy, all performers at their most persuasive in the B Major middle segment where the dark tenor of the work dissipates for a time.

In fact, the main problem with this interpretation came from an underlining of its already sombre character.  While the Ives presented sonorous challenges and consolatory ease in turns, this Dvorak impressed as over-determined, so that the twists into and out of action in the concluding Allegro lacked a balance between heft and lightness, the impact  more of a relentless drive.  Dvorak was living through emotional stress at this time but I think that this interpretation hammered that historical  message with excessive vigour in the score’s two supporting outer pillars.