Prometheus Trio Ranges Widely
Perhaps too widely. Chamber concert has uneven results.
The Prometheus Trio’s flirtation with guest violinist Margot Schwartz is continuing to pay dividends. In a concert featuring a broad swath of musical styles and a sometimes interesting mix of vocal and instrumental works, it was Ms. Schwartz who made the evening enchanting.
The program opened with Zwei Gesäng, Op. 91, by Johannes Brahms. This pair of lovingly penned lullabies was written as a gift to his dear friends, the famous violinist Joseph Joachim and his mezzo-soprano wife Amalie and their newborn children; the songs radiate warmth and tenderness. These works, originally composed for mezzo-soprano, viola, and piano, were performed using cello rather than viola. Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Sonnentag sang with a luminous quality but was easily overwhelmed by the cello and by a piano that would have been better served with the lid on the lower stick. Thankfully, Ms. Sonnentag never pushed the tone in order to be heard. Had balances been equal, the performance would have been lovely. Cellist Scott Tisdel and pianist Stefanie Jacob are quite comfortable playing in the charming and acoustically live recital hall at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, but the voice needed a chance to be the focal point that the ear was listening for.
The second work on the program was Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Caroline Shaw’s Cantico delle Creature, from 2007. Shaw’s piece—written for soprano, violin, cello, and piano—was laced with ghostly effects in the strings, casting random sounds that decorated the chant-like vocal part. Our ears followed the chant while trying to capture shards of time and sunlit notes that emanated from the instruments like shimmering flecks of dust in stained-glass light. Gigantic clusters of bass notes boomed from the piano bemoaning death to those whom the singer warned us committed mortal sin. With unaffected clarity, soprano Jennifer Gettel sang Laudate et benedicite mi’ Signore et rengratiete et serviateli cum grande humilitate (“Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility”). Gettel did indeed serve the music with great humility, and the piano played the dying heart beats of a very haunting piece.
After intermission, Schwartz, Tisdel, and Jacob got back to what they do best with the ravishing Trio quasi una Ballata, Op. 27 (1902), Andante tragico, by Vitezslav Novák. This very lyrical work had many qualities of a great soundtrack. Four different moods went without pause, but each mood gave the impression of a separate movement. While sounding fresh and original, this music recalled influences of Brahms, Dvorak, and Janácek. Schwartz and Tisdel’s parallel play was expressive, precise, and wonderfully in tune; the pizzicato section was stylish and charming; and Jacob’s piano playing was a powerful foundation for such an impressive musical treat. Throughout this delightful work, Schwartz’s violin playing ranged artfully from impassioned to sweetly lyrical. For me, her beautiful sound, soulful musicianship, and impressive facility continued to be the highlight of the concert.
After the Novák came a set of five songs titled Primrose, composed in 1954, by Bohuslav Martinu. Gettel and Sonnentag again joined the trio. These songs, conveying a strong feeling of Czech folk music, opened with the comical “A New Hat,” which was followed by the flirtatious “Above the Farmhouse.” Again, some pleasant singing was lost to the acoustical strength of the piano. In the forlorn “Plaint,” Gettel floated a wordless counterpoint above Sonnentag’s gentle melody, and in the dancing “Painted Wood,” with Schwartz’s fiery fiddle driving the unusual metric patterns, the singers teetered on the jagged edges of asymmetric rhythms. The last song was the bucolic “At Noon.” As often as the women’s voices were lovely and nicely blended, their intonation in the open vocal harmonies was challenging.
Making sure that no artist felt shorted and no audience member was left wanting more, the entire entourage performed four songs from Beethoven’s Selected Folk Songs for voices and piano trio. Beethoven was asked by a publisher in 1806 to arrange Scottish and regional folk music, and these four songs are extracted from more than 150 the composer eventually adapted. It’s interesting to consider why Beethoven took on this task, just as it’s interesting to wonder what would have transpired had Van Gogh been asked to illustrate obscure children’s books. These pastoral, German Romantic efforts seem of little consequence to Beethoven’s repertoire. It seemed only an exercise in finding suitable repertoire for the combination of musicians on stage, and that does not always justify using it.
As for all six of these musicians doing an encore of an arrangement of “I’ve Seen All Good People,” by the progressive rock band Yes? No.