NSO’s A Mellow Walk in Time

featuring 劉宜欣 (Cindy Liu), horn; 王佩瑤, piano; 李宜錦, violin, all members of the NSO

So it’s actually not the NSO, but it is three of their members, in a rare gem of a chamber concert, and seriously what timing! You’ll see what I mean soon, but (spoiler alert) we’re going to be seeing a lot more horn in the coming weeks, and so it was a real delight to hear members of our fantastic local ensemble in a more intimate setting. I’d been looking forward to this concert for ages.

There’s something especially touching, endearing about chamber music, with its intimacy and closeness. This can work to be moving and nostalgic, sweetly expressive, or alternatively, as with, say, Shostakovich’s chamber work, intense and raw. We don’t get lots of chamber music around these parts, so it was a delight to be in the recital hall for the first time in… maybe nearly a year(? certainly not!) to hear Czerny and Brahms.

The program was made up of Czerny’s Grand Trio for violin, horn and piano in E flat major, op. 105, and the Brahms horn trio, basically… the horn trio of horn trios. Interestingly, I learned in speaking with the musicians post-concert, that the Czerny piece was very likely a Taiwan premiere, but we’ll get to that later.

We’ll be addressing the horn in far greater detail in the coming weeks (starting tomorrow, actually) with a new series, but I’ll preempt it (and repeat myself) by saying that some people might think of a horn in a chamber setting as like, a gorilla trying to play Jenga. People are used to hearing it roar or sing above an orchestra in Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, and rarely a tender moment here or there, but all orchestra.

Tonight set the horn, and a fantastic horn player, alongside violin and piano, and all three of them had their moments as soloist. This is in part due to the wonderful writing of the two compositions, lending color, expressiveness, contrast, and vividness to this very versatile combination of timbres. I couldn’t help but think about Beethoven as kind of the spiritual influence behind a program of these two composers.

I’d never heard the Czerny before, and apparently neither had anyone else on Taiwanese soil (live, that is). It’s a three-movement work with independent and yet very effective movements. The first lays out its charms with melodies for violin and horn, but the piano part is no joke, and a great balance was struck here. From the classical-era first movement form, we move to a long, expressive adagio, with flowing lines, played with delicacy. The finale, after the substantial introspection of the central movement, is a sudden burst of energy, a breathtaking rondo that feels like a wonderful emotional contrast from the second movement, and it was presented with plenty of spirit. This was not a timid coloring safely within the lines, but a convincing, exciting reading that rounded out a work that left me with many thoughts, among them the seeming perfection of this rather uncommon trio, how the timbres of the violin and horn meld together at different timbres and with different colors, or else contrast, how versatile the horn is, and how excellent the piano writing is from Czerny, no surprise. And all splendidly played.

15-minute intermission.

And Brahms. While this piece, as mentioned above, is likely the piece almost any musician would think of if someone referred to “the horn trio” with no qualifiers, it might have taken Czerny’s piece as inspiration, as that work might have been the first formal piece written for this combo of instruments.

Brahms’s work is a piece that somehow manages to gather up all the emotions and pack them into a single piece, like that suitcase that always has something else sticking out that won’t fit, no matter how you arrange the contents, except Brahms does it. It’s serious, tender, somber, humorous, mischievous, heavy, light, and that must make it a challenge to interpret, to say nothing of the technical difficulties. It is widely known that Brahms wrote this piece after the death of his mother, but you could get through the first two movements without realizing it. They were played tonight with focus and fervor, especially the gripping second movement, full of contrasts and shifts in personality. And then suddenly, a solemn pall is thrown over the entire affair, from the piano. I don’t know what it was about tonight, the pianist, that particular Steinway, my anticipation of the piece, but the opening of the third movement brought a wash of intense, deep emotion over the audience, or at least me. Sorrow is too intense a word, but introspective or melancholy perhaps not poignant enough. In any case, it was breathtaking, and the finale sharply contrasted it with a finale that was (almost literally) edge-of-your-seat good stuff. Obviously Brahms’s writing is beyond exquisite, but the performance was captivating, a real joy to hear.

We did have an encore, despite my comments to my fellow concertgoer for the evening, an adaptation of a melody from Tchaikovsky, again displaying (or showing off) the horn’s capabilities as a soft, expressive instrument, as well as the chemistry among the players.

We need so much more chamber music in Taiwan. And thank you, ladies, for an outstanding evening of music.

Now to that Czerny premiere. I didn’t forget. It struck me as interesting. Let’s be honest, Carl Czerny’s name isn’t as ubiquitous as that of Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn, on and on and on, but he was a very influential figure in his time and a superb musician. Chew on this:

Czerny’s Grand Trio was written 190 years ago.

It was finished in 1827. Taiwan has a really wonderful music scene. I’ve seen ensembles here like the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Chicago Symphony, world-famous soloists, not to mention our outstanding local ensembles. So how is it that nearly two centuries after the writing of a work like this, we’re only now getting its premiere?

Don’t get me wrong; it’s exceptional to have been able to attend as many local premieres of works as I have, but it surprises me here and there. My point in all of this is that, while maybe not a great example to use to make this point, there’s so much more music out there than that unshakable core repertoire that’s everywhere always replayed and recycled and reinterpreted. I love Schubert and Haydn and Mozart (almost) as much as the next guy, but let’s bring some new stuff to the table, shall we? I think it’s like that “if you build it, they will come” quote (which is actually “if you build it he will come”) in that if people are aware of the stellar musicianship of an ensemble or music director, and trust his or her decision-making when it comes to curating, programming and presenting music, and if there’s passion behind it, by and large, it’ll be a success. That premise tends to stretch a bit if you’re presenting, oh, Elliott Carter string quartets or a piece for 100 metronomes or whatever, but there’s so much outstanding music out there that presents only  one challenge: you’ve not heard it yet. And that’s so easy to remedy.

Back on the topic of conversation, though, in light of all that, what a wonderful ensemble to have given the local premiere of a really exquisite work, alongside the traditional, well loved, canonical Brahms trio. Bravi, and I look forward to hearing you next time.



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