Review: Audience the winner in chamber shows by Vienna Piano Trio, Blake Pouliot

Blake Pouliot left little doubt that he’s the real deal. Photo: Jeff Fasano Photography

Call it the great chamber music face-off of 2020: two nights, two venues, different concerts by two international headliners, each under the banner of one of Ottawa’s rival chamber music festivals.

First up was the Vienna Piano Trio on Monday evening, playing an off-season Music and Beyond concert at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre. Founded by pianist Stefan Mendl in 1988, the VPT is the sine qua non for German repertoire written for piano, violin and cello. While the trio has played in Ottawa before, this was their first appearance since the great Austrian cellist Clemens Hagen, who joined the group in 2018 (American violinist David McCarroll came on board in 2015).

Mendl may be the only original member left, but you would never know they hadn’t all been playing together for the past 32 years (well, other than the fact McCarroll would have been two years old). It’s true that they are uncommonly expressive, constantly looking at each other, communicating through eyebrow signals and intakes of breath. But you can also sense an invisible cord linking the three at all times. There’s not a note, not a rest that isn’t  produced in a perfect, harmonious balance between individuality and community. 

Vienna Piano Trio: Stefan Mendl, David McCarroll and Clemens Hagen. Photo: Nancy Horowitz

What I like about the VPT is they alter their style — within reason — to suit the period of the piece, unlike other groups I’ve heard who perfect a signature sound but apply it indiscriminately. Clemens, who plays a 17th-century Stradivarius cello, can have an enormous, deep, operatically projected sound. But in Haydn’s moody E-minor Trio he played his lines with a wonderfully lean touch and a thrifty vibrato,

I could never tire of hearing Mendl, whether as a soloist or as part of an ensemble. His playing is intrinsically Viennese all the way down, and this was especially obvious in the Haydn: the fabulously clear articulation; the particular quality of the sound, silvery yet warm; the effortless, singing legato; the free, relaxed, sometimes quirky interpretations. Mendl’s pianism reminds me of the late, great Paul Badura-Skoda, another titan of the Viennese piano tradition. 

The ensemble shifted into a more full-throated, romantic palette for Brahms’ C Minor trio. I thought the Intonation was slightly off in the stormy opening movement, and the phrasing felt choppier and more rushed than necessary, hampering the forward impulsion. But the slow movement glided by in velvet slippers, led by McCarroll’s tender, dreamy, cantabile playing. 

Beethoven’s Archduke Trio is a longtime VPT staple. Their version has more spring in its irreverent step than most, bringing out the work’s humour and eccentric angles with vigorously defined accents and crisp — sometimes downright furious — tempi.

On Tuesday night it was Chamberfest’s turn on the mat. Evicted from its usual Carleton Dominion-Chalmers venue by the NACO screening of R.A.W Tuba, Chamberfest presented the young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot at the National Gallery Auditorium. 

The buzz around the 25 year old Toronto musician has only gotten louder in the past couple of years, boosted in apparently equal parts by a JUNO-nominated recording, a stylish Insta feed, and a growing status as a voice for LGBTQ+ representation in classical music. 

Buzz can come and go, but Pouliot left little doubt that he’s the real deal, a talent that will continue to develop and will stand the test of time. Playing his Canada Council Guarneri del Gesu, Pouliot used a dense, ambitious program — he described it as a “pot luck” — to demonstrate his virtuosity and intelligent, sensitive artistry, not to mention his natural charisma, a saucy blend of James Ehnes’ “nice Canadian boy” sweetness and Nico Muhly’s fast-talking sass (Pouliot talked about each work before playing it). 

The program showed that Pouliot has no weak spots, but it felt a little disorganized, like a dog chasing squirrels. Opening with Mozart’s F major Sonata, the first half jumped forward a couple of centuries to Janacek’s Dumka, then back to a Beethoven Romance, before ending with a dazzling Kreisler bonbon, the Caprice Viennois. The second half featured Prokofiev’s monumental first violin sonata, ending the concert with Ravel’s Tzigane. 

The Janacek was a highlight, overflowing with restless longing and heartache, the last notes hollow and bleak. The Prokofiev revealed Pouliot’s tremendous expressive range, his musical fearlessness and his impressive ability to dig deep and ugly when the music calls for it. This was an impressive contrast to the gracious refinement of his Mozart and Beethoven. His Tzigane was idiosyncratic — here I felt he was trying to be a little too original, picking ferocity over the sensuality that more authentically belongs to Ravel. 

I was mystified by Pouliot’s collaborator, pianist Hsin-I Huang. They’ve been playing together for six years, yet I felt their different temperaments were ill-suited. Huang, who was a competition-winning cellist before deciding to concentrate on collaborative piano, is clean, correct and careful — certainly she can play all the notes. But I heard very little depth or and power, and her tonal palette is quite narrow. She plays with a clipped, stiff, high-wristed technique that strangles her sound, making it brittle and superficial; in joint crescendos she seemed to max out her volume long before Pouliot. 

Part of this may have been the fault of the dreadful, dead acoustics at this venue; the NGC auditorium is all drapes and carpet and moldering green upholstered seats. But you can’t blame the hall for the mismatch between Huang’s safe, conventional playing and Pouliot’s passionate spontaneity. I would love to hear him again with a different pianist — not to mention in a more worthy concert venue. 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.