Carnegie Hall, New York
April 17, 2018

“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Lady, ya gotta practice”. It’s a hoary chestnut, but like all such ancient saws it holds more than a grain of truth. Clearly a quite evident amount of practice has paid off for Trio Vitruvi, a young Danish piano trio making its Carnegie debut and comprising one fully-fledged Dane (cellist Jacob la Cour) and a pair of halflings, Swiss-Danish violinist Niklas Walentin and Aussie-Danish pianist Alexander McKenzie.

Trio Vitruvi, Carnegie HallTrio Vitruvi. Photo © Tom McKenzie

Formed in 2013, the trio carried off top honours in Danish National Radio’s P2 Chamber Music Competition in 2014 as well as winning the Jurmala International Music Competition the same year. With evident eagerness to get out of their bow ties at the end, the fresh-faced threesome look like they left Hogwarts just yesterday, but don’t be fooled, there’s a maturity to their playing that belies their ages. Perhaps it was the fruits of two years study of what McKenzie describes as “the philosophy behind music as a language,” with Hatto Beyerle, one of the founders of the Alban Berg Quartet, but this program of Schubert, Shostakovich and Dvořák provided plenty of opportunity to demonstrate their thoughtful, interrogatory approach across a decent breadth of repertoire.

Walentin is perhaps the most understated of the three, his lean, silvery violin tone rarely in your face, yet a steady presence and a fine, listening colleague who can make a splash when required, as demonstrated in some fine gypsy fiddling in the Dvořák. Cellist La Cour is definitely the rock here, his beefy, burnished tone singing out for all its worth in all three works, yet capable of pulling back to blend gracefully with Walentin in duet passages. Behind them chugs McKenzie, the group’s engine and, in terms of leadership, perhaps first among equals. His intense expression and the flutter of his curly hair may be expressive of a powerful emotional input, but he’s also a steady, immaculately precise fingersmith capable of feats of considerable dexterity.

Despite their impressive solo credentials, it’s the mix that matters with a piano trio and that is evident at once, and not just on their impressively engineered debut CD of Schubert’s E Flat Trio for the Bridge label that arrived on my desk last week. This substantial work – given in the rare Bärenreiter Urtext edition that includes a few hundred missing bars in the final movement – took up the whole of the first half of the generous program and allowed the Vitruvians to show their Viennese poise (another payoff from studying with that venerable ABQ violist?).

McKenzie’s mastery of Schubert’s rapid scalar passages allowed him to shine early on in a work that favours the piano (just), while all three players demonstrated an eloquent variety in the long first movement, nicely handling the numerous builds to the weightier climaxes. The Andante con moto second movement drew forth a lovely delicacy of tone from violin and cello, while the Scherzo prompted a wonderful pesante stomp in the central trio. Trio Vitruvi can be infectiously Tiggerish when they put their mind to it, and the finale had an appropriate sense of swagger, even braggadocio, when handling Schubert’s cheeky march tune. If it nearly came a cropper at one point, this was a rare overstep in a distinguished performance.

Trio Vitruvi, Carnegie HallTrio Vitruvi. Photo © Tom McKenzie

That classical elegance turned out to be a surprising asset in Shostakovich’s First Piano Trio, a restless one movement work that can be hard to read as the composer never makes it entirely clear if he’s paying homage or sending up certain uber-Romantic conventions with a dash of faux-Soviet sentimentalism. The woozy opening found the Vitruvians bursting with genteel intoxication before letting their hair down for some wonderfully unlaced Russian oom-pah sections. Watertight ensemble playing helped them to fizz through the crazy Keystone Cops chases, while by contrast the cello was especially eloquent in the big, impassioned central section, an emotional high point offered with a sincerity that all three players clearly bought into.

Dvořák’s Dumky Trio completed the program, a tough nut to pull together for a young trio, yet seeming a walk in the park for these three. With Walentin wearing his heart more overtly on his sleeve, the helter-skelter gypsy shenanigans came off with passion and flare thanks to  rock-solid technique from all three underpinned with iron discipline. La Cour’s cello solos were beautifully finessed, bringing out the Bohemian tears behind the bravura (which is, after all, what lies at the heart of the term ‘Dumky’), and there was a rapt intensity to the lovely muted playing in the third movement. It’s the mix of tipsy fiddle, Czech folk and soulful love songs across six movements that make this work among its composer’s most original utterances, and the Vitruvians’ ability to switch from one mood to the other, while never losing the sense of shared communion, that made this such a satisfying finale to an auspicious Carnegie Hall debut. This is certainly an ensemble to watch out for.

Trio Vitruvi’s debut CD of Schubert is released on Bridge Records this month.