Bell, Isserlis, and Denk make a poetic, unified trio for Celebrity Series concert

April 29, 2019 at 1:30 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk performed Sunday at Symphony Hall.

Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk performed Sunday at Symphony Hall.

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor is a work imbued with profound loss. The heart of the work is the third movement, where heavy chords expand into sweeping lines that fade into passages of spare, hymnic simplicity.

In the hands of violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Steven Isserlis, and pianist Jeremy Denk this movement reflected feelings of both serenity and tragedy in  their Sunday concert at Symphony Hall, presented by the Celebrity Series.

Bell, Isserlis, and Denk are far from strangers to performances of chamber music. Bell and Denk were a longtime recital duo, all have been friends and musical collaborators for decades. 

As an integrated trio, they may be relative newcomers to the scene, yet they played with fresh and cohesive sensitivity and superb technical polish that rendered even the most daring of chamber works with the poetic insight of veteran ensembles.

In the rest of Shostakovich’s Trio, which segues from aguish to sinister humor, these musicians explored vivid contrasts of emotion and color. Completed in the wake of the death of Ivan Sollertinsky, a musical and literary polymath who was close to the composer, this dark score not only mirrors the composer’s grief but his horror at the state of the world in 1944.

In the first movement, Isserlis’s opening whistle-like tones complemented Bell’s rosy phrases to bring an eerie solace and tranquility. When Denk entered the fray, the agitated music glowed with unexpected warmth, an odd fit for the composer’s rough-edged statements. But the musicians found great urgency in the second movement, which took on roiling intensity.

With precision and conviction, the trio built each phrase of the finale’s folk-flavored theme into aggressive statements that expressed the sardonic, mocking humor etched into this music.

In Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor, Bell, Isserlis, and Denk found both delicacy and grandeur. Ravel’s sole trio reflects his Basque roots as its movements brim with dance rhythms set in quick-changing meters.

Denk’s soft, elegant lines in the opening wound around the bright melodies played by Bell and Isserlis. The trio swelled and softened their tone to capture all the shades of Ravel’s impressionistic writing, though they turned on the vigor when called upon, building the animated figures into a frenzy. The lines of the second movement were lilting and graceful and the players brought fiery conviction to the closing measures.

The latter movements showcased each musician in colorful effects. Denk’s piano chords in the Passacaglia—resembling “Jimbo’s Lullaby” from Debussy’s Children’s Corner suitechimed like distant bells. Gleaming harmonics from Bell and Isserlis fused with Denk’s rippling piano figures in the finale, which surged to a vibrant conclusion.

In Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, the musicians mined a sonorous edge and dramatic weight.

The first movement began in darkness, each player shaping his phrases with wide dynamics and gentle rubato. The transitions between themes coursed with vitality, growing into bold, furious passages in the codetta. The second movement, a genuine song without words, brought out the searching qualities. In a tasteful contrast, the players delivered appropriate Mendelssohnian fire in the Scherzo.

In the finale, the quotation of the hymn Gelobet seist du—commonly known as “Old One Hundredth”–delivered reverential moments, the lines culminating into grand statements by movement’s end.

The most arresting lyrical moments of the afternoon came in the ensemble’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor.

Spun into a silvery web by Bell and Isserlis, the swirling figures that open the work coalesced in yearning phrases when Denk entered, his melody by turns crystalline and haunting. As the piece progressed, the trio found all of the resplendence laden within the score, their phrases cresting and fading to a dark conclusion. 

The Celebrity Series will present Philharmonix in a mix of classical, Klezmer, Latin, and pop music 8 p.m. Friday at Jordan Hall.; 617- 482-6661


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