In a program entitled Autumnal Reflections, a trio from the 11-member Fifth House Ensemble gave a rousing performance of three romantic era works at the Driehaus Museum on Wednesday night. While the music-making could have been crisper and more precise, violinist Charlene Kluegel, cellist Herine Coetzee Koschak, and pianist Katherine Peterson offered intense feeling and drive for an overall satisfying experience. Although usually performing with additional Fifth House Ensemble players, the trio played off each other as if they had exclusively performed together for a long time.
The third floor receiving hall of the Driehaus Museum, decked out in holiday regalia, created a Currier and Ives atmosphere idyllic for chamber music. With the players and audience barely separated by a few feet, blending a piano with two stringed instruments can be a challenge, especially with the hearty works on the program, which, coming from the late 19th Century, are typically played in larger concert halls. On that evening the museum’s piano had a rather heavy and coarse sound, and Katherine Peterson struggled a bit with its touch and mechanics.
At first, everything came out louder than normal, which really showed up in the first movement of the first work, Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 in d-minor, op. 32. In opening remarks, Peterson described this piece as “devastating,” a work they loved to play because “it was like group therapy.”
Emotional it certainly is. Notwithstanding the limited dynamic range resulting from the setting, Kluegel, Koschak, and Peterson attacked the first movement with a moving and evocative outpouring. Right from the beginning, where the violin and cello are backed up by the piano, they let their souls out, making this therapy session worthy of several packets of tissues.
By the time they got to the second movement, a lighter scherzo, they seemed to find their dynamic groove, but the third movement, a somber Elegia, really showed their passion. Violinst Kluegel and cellist Koschak opened it by trading plaintive melodies on muted strings, with Peterson carefully backing up on piano. The roles reversed with an airy middle section, where the strings were especially tight. When the opening section returned, the strings played the melodies together, with the piano contributing to a mood that had become grim.
Kluegel and Koschak stayed in place for the next piece, a passacaglia by Johan Halvorsen, which is based on George Friedrich Handel’s passacaglia from a harpsichord suite. Halvorsen scored it for violin and viola, but cellist Koschak, noting how the repertoire for violin and cello duo is rather sparse, explained that the Fifth House Ensemble players adapted the viola part for the cello, as others have done.
Passacaglias were a staple from music’s baroque era, which ended 150 years before Halvorsen offered his contribution. He wasn’t alone in exploring this archaic form. Around the same time, Johannes Brahms, whose music was to be performed later Wednesday evening, composed a delightful passacaglia to conclude his 4th Symphony.
Halvorsen starts his in a traditional fashion with a short melodic phrase that, as is typical, has the plodding feel of a base line, rather than a song-like tune. Halvorsen then echoes the phrase in all sorts of ways to create a compelling piece that has a wide variety of speeds, volume, and intensity—all built by repeating the brief grouping of notes dozens of times.
Talented players can go to town on a piece like this, and, notwithstanding occasional missed notes, Kluegel and Koschak showed off big time. Especially impressive were passages toward the end when their left hands, perfectly synchronized, danced on their instruments’ fingerboards while their bows somehow managed to eke out clear and compelling tones. The players clearly enjoyed themselves, and the music was effusive.
Without intermission, Peterson rejoined the players for Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B-major, op. 8. Many years ago I was visiting a friend who asked me to change the music. When I put on this trio, his response was memorable, “So, you went for the schmalz!” I suppose I did, but I always loved this work, and it was perfect in the Driehaus Museum’s holiday setting.
This trio is Brahms’ first published work for chamber music. In introducing the piece, violinist Charlene Kluegel explained that, thirty years after its initial publication, Brahms revised it, wisely tightening it thematically and shortening it substantially. The revised version was performed Wednesday night.
Even in the shortened version, Brahms in his old age successfully preserved the work’s youthful drive and invention, starting with the little-used key of B-major. The opening creates a sunny and positive mood, interspersed with brief periods of quiet introspection. The mood becomes more pensive in a b-minor scherzo, which is broken up by an inspirational middle section back in the tonic major key. This construct is reversed for an eerie, dream-like slow movement back in the home key, with a middle section featuring a tune played on the cello in a more distant minor key. The work, which starts brightly, ends gloomily in the tonic minor.
Kluegel, Koschak and Peterson extracted all emotion that could be had from this piece. Their dynamic range, challenged earlier in the concert, was fully present. Koschak was particularly effective playing the warm opening cello theme in the first movement, and the interlude in the slow, third movement. The players completely captured the shifting moods in the finale, which succeeded in grabbing the audience’s rapt attention.
The Fifth House Ensemble will be performing a holiday concert at the North by North Pole Conference (NXNP) at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave, on Chicago, December 8, 2016, 8:30 pm. They also recently released two, new CDs. For more information, check out http://fifth-house.com/.