Montrose Trio proves a mixed bag in return to Mandel Hall

Sat Apr 23, 2022 at 2:23 pm

By Tim Sawyier

The Montrose Trio performed music of Schubert and Beethoven Friday night at Mandel Hall in the UChicago Presents Series. File photo: Jerry Zolynsky

Four years ago, the Montrose Trio made an impressive local debut in the UChicago Presents series with a stirring program of Beethoven, Turina, and Mendelssohn. Clearly, much has happened in the world since then. Whatever the reason, it was a more subdued affair when the ensemble returned to Mandel Hall on Friday night with the mammoth B-flat trios of Schubert and Beethoven.

The Trio comprises pianist Jon Kimura Parker, violinist Martin Beaver, and cellist Clive Greensmith, the latter two formerly of the retired Tokyo String Quartet and currently on faculty at Colburn. All three men are seasoned chamber musicians, yet Friday’s performance remained largely earthbound.

Even before the music began, the limited attendance was conspicuous and far below pre-pandemic expectations for such an event. (Though the University’s recent Korngold Festival had no problem filling the Logan Center.) Still, with a void in leadership, the UChicago Presents series seems to be having some difficulty regaining its footing after the pandemic and the departure of longtime executive director Amy Iwano. “They don’t quite know what they’re doing yet,” said one audience member. Perhaps that unsettled state set a muted tone that translated to the players.

Schubert turned to writing piano trios at the end of his tragically short life, finishing his two masterworks in the genre in his final year. Friday’s program began with the first of these, the Trio in B-flat Major, D. 898. 

The Montrose gentlemen played graciously in the spacious Allegro moderato, and highlighted moments of the ingenious oddities found throughout Schubert’s late scores, emphasizing unexpected connections and harmonic pivots. Greensmith launched the Andante un poco mosso with a plangent cello solo, but here as in the first movement, it felt like there was more poetry to be mined in Schubert’s intricate writing.

The Scherzo started with propulsion, with the Trio members at times emphasizing Schubert’s metrical trickery to good effect, but their playing remained on one level, both in terms of dynamics and timbre. While the closing Rondo galloped along unimpeded enough, again, the sense was of repetition rather than development.

The musicians made a more compelling case in Beethoven’s “Archduke” Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97. The flowing opening theme had motion and nobility, though here as elsewhere it felt like Parker struggled to find variation in the piano’s colors. Parker is a formidable soloist lacking in neither power nor command, so perhaps the Mandel Hall instrument created some limitations. The coy Scherzo felt fitfully monochrome, though aspects of Beethoven’s amusingly off-kilter writing still came across.

The ardent Andante cantabile of the “Archduke” was the highlight of the evening. Something about the restrained aesthetic that typified the performance suited the noble, searching expression of Beethoven’s hymn-like variations (which foreshadow the finale of the late E-major Piano Sonata). The organic manner in which the Montrose players spun these showed the Trio at its best. They brought out the fantasy with which Beethoven treats the final movement’s unassuming theme, ending the evening more convincingly and energetically than it began.

UChicago Presents hosts organist Paul Jacobs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Rockefeller Chapel, performing works of Weaver, Franck, Buck, Bach, and Guilmant.

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