The Delphi Trio, a San Francisco-based threesome of piano, violin and cello, made a stop in South Florida on Tuesday night in a different guise than expected.
Founding pianist Jeffrey LaDeur has left the group to “pursue other projects,” said violinist Liana Bérubé, and so she and cellist Michelle Kwon were joined by Tampa-based pianist Eunmi Ko at the Flagler Museum for a program of music by Beethoven, Schumann and Schubert to kick off the Palm Beach institution’s new season of Tuesday night concerts.
It’s to the credit of the three musicians that they were able to give as unified a performance as they did, seeing as this essentially was a new ensemble, in some of the more demanding pieces in the literature. It was a substantial program, too, of three large works, the second half being taken up entirely by Schubert’s massive Piano Trio in E-flat (D. 929).
The evening opened in the Whitehall Music Room with the Piano Trio No. 3 (in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3) of Beethoven, usually regarded as the breakout work of the first major work he designated for publication, in 1795. This is a vigorous, surprising piece, and heard in the context of a Haydn trio the listener can hear that this was a young composer in that tradition who nevertheless was heading in a bold new direction.
The 1903 Steinway that belonged to Mary Lily Flagler that is now used for these chamber events is more than welcome, since its relative lightness works better in the very live Music Room, where more modern pianos have tended to overwhelm partner players in the past. And so what we heard Tuesday night was a virile, tense reading of this Beethoven trio that successfully conveyed its high spots and overall mood while understandably lacking a sense of lived-in detail.
Ko had her work cut out for her, given that this trio often sounds like a reduced version of a piano concerto, with plenty of showoff scales and glittery patterns throughout its four movements. She did all these with admirable clarity and evenness. Bérubé and Kwon played with assurance and unity; they were particularly effective in the more elaborate moments of the second movement theme and variations.
Robert Schumann’s Trio No. 2 (in F, Op. 80), which dates to 1847, came next. Nominally a staple of the piano trio repertoire, it doesn’t get many live outings these days, as cellist Kwon noted in brief remarks outlining how the music reflected Schumann’s devotion to his wife, Clara. That’s a pity, because it is an exuberant, powerful piece that embodies the Romantic aesthetic. Here, too, the Delphi demonstrated strong ensemble, and gave the trio a big-boned, passionate performance.
In the first movement, the threesome paid good attention to dynamics and contrast, which in music like this needs to be as wide as possible. There was a missed opportunity in the beginning of the slow movement, with its trademark Schumannesque throbbing triplets in the piano; instead of establishing a hushed, beating-heart mood to suffuse the lyrical parts of the movement, Ko played them with too much force, getting the music off to a rough start before things settled down. The fourth-movement finale, on the other hand, had a delightful sense of forward motion and headlong energy.
The Schubert trio that closed the concert came off very well, in part because this piece gives the three players spotlight moments with indelible motifs. The sprawling first movement had a fine sense of sweep, with one lovely tune after another creating a soundscape of real drama. The opening of the second movement gave the modest house a welcome chance to hear Kwon’s playing at some length. She has a beautiful, warm sound that was ideally suited to the melancholy “Renaissance dance,” as Bérubé called it, with its somber, elegant theme.
Bérubé’s command of her instrument was also on full display in the Schubert, with a penetrating, incisive tone quality that served her especially well in the points of peak tumult in the outer movements. Overall, the audience acclaimed this evening of canonical German repertoire. It fell short only in the one thing that couldn’t be avoided: the kind of unity you get when players in such an ensemble have been working together a long time and virtually breathe as one.
Hats off, then, to Eunmi Ko for stepping in, and to the Delphi Trio in general for pulling off what proved to be a very enjoyable evening of chamber music.