Was it a good trade-off? Opinions vary, even among Schnittke fans. The Newburyport performance, the penultimate stop of Trio Epomeo’s three-country, two-continent tour, had been conceived as musical tapas, of sorts, giving the audience a taster’s menu, a variety of works to sample, a selection of moods and colors, rather than complete works. But, even within this context, the emphasis was on the modern, and the mood tilted toward darker hues: Hans Krasa’s chilling “Tanz,” which opens with a waltz and ends with oblivion; Alan Hovhaness’ ethereal, otherworldly Trio, the musical manifestation of a deep, mournful sadness that seems to exist on a cellular level; Gideon Klein’s “Based on a Moravian Theme,” a concise and unforgettable emotional musical rollercoaster; and, finally, closing the first half of the performance with Schnittke’s alternately lulling and jolting crash-bang String Trio.
Within this context, the Beethoven seems a little out of place historically, musically and even geographically, given that the work presented had an eastern Europe perspective — even the encore, a Kodaly Intermezzo. At the same time, it was comforting, steadying, closing with Beethoven, a lovely piece — lyrical, expressive, an incredible vehicle for exploring possibilities of the instruments. And, again, when you encounter such inspired playing —wonderfully executed and, at times, absolutely breathtaking performances by players at the top of their game, up close and personal— all this talk about the what’s what of the program becomes mere sport. So, again, within this context, the decision to go Ludwig becomes a fielder’s choice.
It was a magical evening — seriously under attended, but magical. The trio, which came together last year at the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy to explore the possibilities of just one piece (the Schnittke Trio, natch) and discovered that they clicked musically, sounded like they had been playing together forever. The performance space (the Carriage House, a marvelous listening room fashioned out of an 19th-century out-building on the Lord Timothy Dexter Estate by NCMF patrons Julia Farwell Clay and Walter Clay) is a delight, as was the after-party — the social aspect, the schmooze, has been an important part of festival since its inception. There was plenty of food and wine and a chance to chat up musicians. We heard stories about Wallis’ recent tour of North Korea, of all places. Or the time when he and Wood, who worked together during a musical interlude in Arkansas, wandered into a rock and roll club. Wallis kind of hung back, but Woods, who performed in a rock band back in his Indiana University days, jammed with the band, playing guitar behind his head, a la Jimi Hendrix. But the best news we got, before the last of the wine had been poured, was that trio plans to record the Schnitkke. Stay tuned.