Three of the composers on the program of this 115th season of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto are linked in a significant pattern of numbers. Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809, the year Joseph Haydn died. Paul Schoenfield was born in 1947, one hundred years after Mendelssohn died. Haydn’s Piano Trio no. 39, famous for the gypsy folk music of the final Rondo, is dedicated to a woman with whom the composer was conducting a passionate affair: it is “romantic” in two ways that look forward to Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no. 1 so looks back to the classical tradition that his friends considered it “ somewhat old-fashioned”. Schoenfield’s Café Music is also deliberately “old-fashioned”, as it looks back to turn-of-the-century “salon” music and the classical/folk/gospel mash-ups of Charles Ives. The Piano Trio of the fourth composer, Arno Babajanian (1921–83), was composed 100 years after the death of Mendelssohn: its roots tap into the folk music of Armenia. Whether forward- or backward-looking, all the pieces on this Valentine’s Day program, like Cupid’s arrows, point at the heart.

The Duke Trio in performance © Stanley Fefferman
The Duke Trio in performance
© Stanley Fefferman

The Duke Trio members live in three different cities: Montreal, Toronto and London, Ontario, but when they play they are totally in the same room. Peter Longworth is distinguished for the delicate lyricism of his touch on the piano, whose part Haydn put at the centre of his piano trios. The role Haydn assigned to the cello, played by Thomas Wiebe, is to stitch sustaining power to the piano’s lower register. The violin supports the piano’s line of notes at every point, as a string supports the beads of a necklace. Mark Fewer performs his role with virtuosic fever. In the slow movement, while Longworth rolls out a lovely catch-in-the-breath Moonlight Sonata-style ostinato, Feuer takes the melody into the passionate zone of Beethoven or Mendelssohn. Longworth’s touch in the quick Rondo a l’Ongarese runs light and lively as a kitten over the keys while the cello pumps out a wild “Gypsy” beat and the violin does its crazy dance.

Arno Babadjanian’s Piano Trio in F sharp minor gives the cello a featured part. In unison with the violin, the rich, deeply-felt voice of the cello introduces the dramatic main theme while the piano tolls ominous minor chords. The Duke Trio conjure an atmosphere of visual drama like a film score, a genre Babadjanian was prolific in. The drama and the theme continue through the two following movements. The Andante produces a peace-that-passeth-all-understanding. The Allegro finale is played with bravura; Longworth’s piano rings and booms percussively in harmony with the violin while the cello waxes lyrical. This performance put the fox among the chickens: the audience swelled with chatter till Mark Fewer introduced Paul Schoenfield’s three-movement Café Music as “tongue-in-cheek frantic bon-bons for Valentine’s Day”.

While Babadjanian’s music is just beginning to be known outside of Armenia, Schoenfield’s work has gotten a lot of attention in concert and on recordings since its debut in 1987. I agree with the reviewer who commented on one recording that Café Music is “one of the funniest and most good-natured pieces by any living composer”. It’s a really clever American Ivesian mash-up of rag-time traditions (Scott Joplin, William Bolcom), Jazz (Ellington), Broadway (Gershwin), with added touches of Klezmer, Old Vienna and Les Six. The opening Allegro moves like a vaudevillian in a checked suit strutting a cakewalk – think Lawrence Olivier as Archie Rice in The Entertainer. The second movement has a lyrical, lovely, lugubrious, slow and kind of sexy “Cry Me a River” type much repeated theme that is totally entertaining. The Presto features piano and cello racing like a runaway team of horses. My mood at intermission rated this performance at a rare five stars.

In 1839, when Mendelssohn published his Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49, Robert Schumann called it “the trio masterpiece of the present time”. Though much of Mendelssohn’s work gradually faded from the repertoire until the 1950s, this graciously melodic work retained its popularity. Thomas Wiebe’s cello announces the arching, darkly aching melody of the first theme. The violin dances the movement along and the piano gives it a bouncing lilt. Peter Longworth’s delicate facility at the keyboard is penetrating. His solo at the start of the Andante rises to the heart; the cello echoes its beat. The Scherzo, typical Mendelssohn faerie music, skips by like a mountain brook, eliciting audible clucks of satisfaction from the audience. The Allegro finale is passion played with vehemence, but lightly, Wiebe’s cello shadowing Mark Fewer’s violin with a yearning that looks forward to Dvořák. It was an afternoon of music that, for a while, held everyone into the same room.

*****