Thursday, October 15, 2015

Triple Czech: First-rate German piano trio delivers a nifty program to launch Ensemble Music season

Bohemian rhapsodies: ATOS Trio played a Czech program.
The three musicians who got together in 2003 to form the ensemble that played Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center took care of the naming problem by going the all-caps route.

How the ATOS Trio boosted its American profile offers a key to the solution they found: The 2007 Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson International Trio Award allowed Annette von Hehn, Stefan Heinemeyer, and Thomas Hoppe to play 20 U.S. concerts, including Carnegie Hall.

The group honored in the award's name has the mouth-filling identification of its members, two of whom — husband and wife Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson — were for several years on the IU Jacobs School of Music faculty.

Often abbreviated to K-L-R, that trio didn't have the advantage of the shortest last names of any possible piano trio, the Ax-Kim-Ma ensemble, nor the difficult choice of finding an appropriate name that didn't rely on members' surnames, as the seminal Beaux Arts Trio (and many of its descendants) did.

With an "O" thrown in for euphony, ATOS is derived from the first-name initials of violinist Von Hehn, pianist Hoppe, and cellist Heinemeyer. In this concert, they further showed their genius for concentration by presenting "The Czech Album," works for their instrumental combination by Josef Suk, Bedrich Smetana, and Antonin Dvorak.

The Dvorak work properly occupied the second half of the concert, both by virtue of its length and its superiority to the other two works, as worth hearing as they were. Trio No. 3 in F minor, op. 65, has an expansive, four-movement layout. And it benefits as well from its comprehensive symphonic unity. In the tightly organized first movement, for example, everything sort of dovetails. There are no rough seams, and none of the material is isolated or left hanging in mid-air.

ATOS displayed its full engagement with the Bohemian spirit in the "Allegretto grazioso" second movement. The lyrical intensity of the slow movement that followed was under firm control, yet  never sounded rigid. The contrasts in the finale, reminiscent of some of the far expressive reaches of the works presented earlier, were made the most of. The work's dramatic arc tended toward pure joy, and it was in that spirit that ATOS' enchanting performance concluded.

Smetana's Trio in G minor, op. 15, was created during a period of personal difficulty for the composer, a troubled man who nonetheless counts as the founding father of the Bohemian national school. There is a "furiant" evocation in the Presto finale, to be sure, but the piece generally speaks an intimate language unrelated to nationalism. It verges on the bombastic at times, but at length its variety, including explosive accents and dramatic pauses precisely timed by the players, wins the listener over. There are charming solos, well presented as the first movement got under way by Von Hehn and as a piquant lyrical contrast in the last movement by Heinemeyer.

The concert opened with a work less anguished than the Smetana, less elaborately polished than the Dvorak: Suk's Trio in C minor, op. 2.  It is sturdily if rather obviously structured. Suk displays a resourcefulness signaled by how convincingly he turns the salonish second-movement theme into something more substantial, developing it into vigorous and borderline wild music.

The elfin sprightliness of the finale found the ATOS musicians at their peak of coordination; it was where I first noticed  that its members' pinpoint rapport tends to establish itself with a minimum of eye contact. There seemed to be something in the air onstage throughout the concert, creating a telepathic unanimity with a minimum of apparent cues. In all three works, timing and dynamics had exquisite precision, making ATOS' Czech album deserving of rapt perusal.

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