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Trio successfully juggles wide range of music

Raphael Trio
Kresge Auditorium
Oct. 15

By Thomas Chen

The Raphael Trio juggled music from three distinct periods last Friday night, jumping from Haydnesque classicism to twentieth century modernity before stepping back to Schubert. Their playing got better as the evening progressed.

Haydn clearly gave the pianist the lead role in his Trio in E, and it's a demanding part, probably written for a pianist of exceptional ability. The Raphael's Daniel Epstein was clearly in command of the brilliant piano writing, but often played too loudly, overshadowing his colleagues. Violinist Charles Castelman was also off the mark, however, with an overly-intense and sometimes wide vibrato. The first movement may have opened happily enough, but the music became extremely hard-pressed and unconvincingly argued, with the violin failing to produce a natural singing line. The middle movement Allegretto with its persistent base line was hurried through, as well. Although the players did warm up for the last movement, I remained unconvinced that what they were playing was a Haydn piano trio.

Things looked up for the performance of MIT music lecturer Edward Cohen's Trio of 1992, written especially for the Raphael. The outer movements have rhythmically-organized yet harmonically-dissonant themes. Cohen uses a ternary form where the third movement is a re-presentation of the first movement's material. The fast moving rhythms and technical demands on the players made these Scherzando movements exciting. The musicians displayed their technical prowess, easily transcending the difficulties presented them by the composer.

The middle movement Lento is characterized by Cohen as a dialogue among the three instruments. It starts out ominously in the lower ranges of the piano and cello, gradually building into a heated argument between the violin and cello.

The overall organization of the work is impressive. Twentieth century works can sometimes not only be difficult to listen to, but also difficult to follow. Cohen's trio is logically organized and interesting to hear. And the Raphael did complete justice to the music created for them.

Unlike Cohen's trio which has a broad ABA form, the Schubert Piano Trio in E flat is written in the four movement "grand sonata style" that Beethoven catalyzed by allowing more freedom for the strings. Schubert probably wrote the trio in 1827, near the time of his other piano trio in B-flat. Compared to the lyrical, eloquent B-flat trio, the relatively less-cohesive E-flat trio is less often played as no less a music critic than Robert Schumann wrote that the E-flat trio "passed across the face of the musical world like some angry portent in the sky."

The Raphael Trio's interpretive approach seemed to fit this work better than it had the Haydn. The group played with more personality this time, and the violin tone seemed more natural for Schubert's music.

It was a particular joy to hear the excellent cellist Susan Salm play more melodic material. Perhaps the most understated of the three musicians, she consistently produced a balanced tone, coupled with musical intelligence; I especially enjoyed her playing in the slow movement.

The last movement can sometimes seem a little long-winded; Schubert himself even chose to cut about a hundred bars from his original manuscript. However, the Raphael Trio produced a very strong finish in Schubert's over-extended last movement rondo, holding the excitement through the very end. As deserved, they were warmly rewarded by an enthusiastic ovation from the audience.