The intimacy of chamber music is perhaps one of the best antidotes to a frigid Chicago winter, and the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University provides just that in their distinguished Winter Chamber Music Festival, now in its 21st season. Friday night saw the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in the midst of their 40th anniversary celebrations, having first performed together for the 1977 inauguration of President Jimmy Carter – an easy anniversary to mark given that another presidential inauguration is right around the corner.

Several of their performances this season feature a recreation of their first program, comprised of trios by Mendelssohn and Schubert, for which they commissioned long-time collaborator Ellen Taaffe Zwilich to write a brief opener. The resulting Pas de Trois, a compact two-movement work, served as an effective prelude to Friday’s program as well.  The jazzy rhythms and harmonies of the opening Entrée gave the piece an immediate appeal, while the succeeding Variata e Coda began more introspectively. Each member had a solo passage before the jazzy feel of the beginning returned in a tutti conclusion. While the piece may not have made any profound artistic statements in its nine-minute duration, it was nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to an otherwise weighty program.

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor is one of the undisputed peaks of the piano trio literature, and the ensemble’s gripping performance didn’t disappoint. It began with glassy, otherworldly cello harmonics (Sharon Robinson’s 1717 Stradivarius now entering its third century of musical service), and the piano responded ominously with a plodding, downward gesture. The Allegro non troppo was quintessential Shostakovich in its caustic, sardonic wit, and guttural playing in the strings gave it a real grit. It later built to almost ecstatic heights aided by Joseph Kalichstein’s brilliant piano playing. While all three members are supremely gifted, if there was a standout, Kalichstein’s utter command of the piano surely comes to mind.

The Largo is the emotional core of the work, a forlorn prayer opening with a chord progression in the solo piano, deftly voiced by Kalichstein and repeated incessantly as a passacaglia. Jaime Laredo’s violin entered in a plaintive lament, and the somber mood prevailed throughout the rest of the work, as if the point of no return had been crossed. In Kalichstein’s spoken introduction, he proposed that the two concluding movements were the composer’s response to learning of the Nazi death camps. He further suggested the grisly image of Nazis dancing on the graves of their victims as inspiration for the danse macabre that is the finale replete with Jewish folk music. It was given a bracing, unrelenting performance, grinding to a halt when the passacaglia returned in the low registers of the piano, eerily contrasted by the high strings. The work unexpectedly concluded in E major, but this felt more like a whimper than a true peaceful resolution.

After the tragic depths of the Shostakovich, Romantic warmth was to be had in the Piano Trio no. 1 in B major of Brahms, presented in the familiar revised version. Matters were initiated by a beautifully singing line in the cello, and lively dialogues characterized the opening movement, its dramatic highpoints fueled by the passions of the young composer. Forty years of collaboration certainly paid its dividends – the balance between members of the trio was ideal and their communication as natural as conversation.

A call and response gesture gave the second movement a lively rustic feel, while time stood still in the slow movement. The chordal piano writing (perhaps a model Shostakovich used in writing the analogous movement of the previous work) supported pensive, gentle melodies in the strings. Nervous energy kept one on edge during the finale, first introduced in the cello over a rollicking piano line, and the work concluded firmly in the minor, the lushness of the opening ultimately capitulating to tragedy.

A well-deserved encore was in order, and the trio returned to the stage with Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess in a transcription by Andy Stein. This charming arrangement perfectly captured the wistfulness of the haze of summer, seasonally inappropriate as it may have been.