By Dennis D. Rooney
The Lysander Piano Trio was founded at New York’s Juilliard School in 2009. Their performance at the Duncan Theatre’s Stage West on Feb. 2, part of the Classical Café matinee concerts, featured cellist Alice Yoo deputizing for regular cellist Michael Katz.
She and pianist Liza Stepanova opened the program with Gaspar Cassadó’s arrangement of the Intermezzo from the operatic version of Goyescas by Enrique Granados (1867-1916). When its premiere by the Metropolitan Opera was being prepared, a set change took too much time, and the composer was asked to supply additional music. Thus, it does not appear in his 1911 piano suite of the same name on which the opera was based.
New York had been chosen as Paris was unavailable due to wartime. That choice indirectly led to the death of Granados and his wife when the French vessel bringing them home was sunk by a submarine in the English Channel. The Intermezzo’s themes of intense lamentation are familiar to anyone acquainted with the piano pieces. Yoo and Stepanova made it an effective opener.
Haydn’s Trio in E-flat (Hob. XV:29) was published in London in 1797, during his second journey to the British capital. It is a work with many humorous aspects, and filled with unexpected twists and turns throughout its three movements. A mock-heroic march goes through many guises. The middle Allegretto is on its way to be a long movement but cleverly launches the Allegro finale instead, which is a rustic, and occasionally rowdy ländler. The Lysanders were at their best from its beginning to the final measures. It was the concert’s highlight.
A 2019 Piano Trio by Brian Raphael Nabors (b. 1991), an Alabama native, closed the first half of the program. Its three movements are respectively entitled “Hyde to Jekyll,” “A Day in the Life,” and “Jekyll to Hyde,” and suggest transformation. Its musical invention was not strikingly original but cast in a pleasingly consonant style, with lots of unisons, octaves, and spectral harmonics in the middle movement. Despite a good performance, and some intriguing sonorities, I found the work’s musical gestures too conventional to sustain interest, and its arch form too predictable.
Schubert’s Trio in B-flat (D. 898, once known as Op. 99) concluded the program. Because it is one of the summits of the piano trio repertoire, all trios want to play it. Unfortunately for all newcomers, this work now has a daunting performance track record.
At least two dozen “immortal performances” of it have been recorded since 1927, the experience of which is readily accessible and already embedded in the aural memory of many concertgoers, who are ready to compare your performance against the supple and perfectly proportioned pianism of a Myra Hess, the silvery lyric violinism of a Jacques Thibaud, and the eloquent yet impassioned phrasing of cellist Emanuel Feuermann.
Even without those comparisons, the Lysander’s performance was energetic but often a strenuous manner crept in that was out of spirit with the geniality and humor that coexist with drama and lyric beauty. Violinist Itamar Zorman was consistently reliable; cellist Woo sometimes did not project adequately because pianist Stepanova had difficulty controlling the sound of her Steinway D in the small space and dry acoustics of Duncan Stage West.
I would have preferred to hear them in the “other” Schubert trio, in E-flat, which I think would have suited them better.