Sitkovetsky Piano Trio

Alexander Sitkovetsky Violin

Wu Qian Piano

Richard Harwood Cello


Sitkovetsky Trio pulls out all stops in outstanding recital

March 25, 2014

Musica Viva patrons might have stayed away from this subscription series recital because of unfamiliarity with the ensemble on show. If so, they missed the chance to catch a piano trio of outstanding ability and thorough insight, on a par with the best that the organisation has toured in recent times. These musicians have been performing together since their pre-teen years and it shows, both through their technical confidence in one another and by a kind of interpretative empathy that operates throughout large-scale works.

In fact, the longer Saturday night's program lasted, the more engrossing was the display of unflappable command. Violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky gave a gripping start to Smetana's G minor Trio, leading his colleagues on a path that embraced the composer's eloquent melody-writing and the fierce emotion that permeates each of the three movements. Pianist Wu Qian managed the difficult task of being both supportive and prominent in turns, shown especially well in a confident account of the rapid-fire finale.

The Sitkovetskies have recorded this work, so a consequent ultra-familiarity shone out. Their achievement in Beethoven's Archduke was just as eloquent, the timbre of cellist Leonard Elschenbroich a continuous pleasure, particularly in close partnership passages with Sitkovetsky during this massive work's slow movement.

The group also premiered Carl Vine's Piano Trio, commissioned for Musica Viva and instrumentally action-packed, Qian kept particularly busy in its final pages.

On Tuesday night, Beethoven will be replaced by Tchaikovsky's A minor Trio. Hear these players while you can - they're well worth it.

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Clive O'Connell

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Brit Trio conquer Melbourne with Czech and Russian fare, plus Carl Vine's 60th birthday present.

March 25, 2014

On Tuesday evening the Sitkovetsky Trio performed an exemplary recital at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall in front of a large and attentive audience beginning with a virtuosic and exciting account of the Smetana Piano Trio in G Minor.

Right from the opening violin solo, Alexander Sitkovetsky’s playing was superb as was Leonard Elschenbroich’s contribution on cello. Together with fine support from Wu Qian on piano, the trio produced some glorious playing in the opening exchanges and animated the developmental material and climactic moments with a lucid and elegant virtuosity. In the lyrical second subject of the first movement and the Andante of the second, the violin and cello playing was stunningly beautiful with a natural rubato that made Elschenbroich’s exchanges with Sitkovetsky a constant delight all evening. In the finale, the trio was impressive with tempos that always pushed forward with ardour but with striking clarity in Qian’s challenging piano part.

Next on the program was Carl Vine’s new Piano Trio titled The Village, an impressive composition that will be a valuable addition to the piano trio repertoire. The Sitkovetskys gave a fine account that attempts to re-imagine the architectural aspect of composition. Done away with are the large-scale sectional divisions of exposition, development and recapitulation but instead, musical ideas are allowed to interact and transform with greater freedom. This new way of composing gives the sense of constant variation without the reference to just one theme or bass line. Vine’s new work is grateful and challenging for the performers. The music develops so organically and constantly, little by little, that the transition from the quieter moments to the fiery ending is almost imperceptible.

After interval, the group launched into the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A Minor. This is a demanding work that requires a high level of physical stamina from the musicians and an emotional delivery that, much like the zooming lenses of a high quality camera, is able to illuminate both the finer and larger scale details – from the music box-like piano part of Variation 5 of the second movement to the sweeping landscape of the first movement’s exposition. 

Like in the Smetana, Sitkovetsky’s exchanges with Elschenbroich in the Adagio of the first movement (the movement’s highpoint and actual recapitulation) was particularly touching.  Here was beautiful sustained lyrical playing with long lines and amicable support from Qian’s piano. In the second movement, Sitkovetsky navigated the capricious violin part of Variation 2 with sparkle, as did Qian in her dashing account of Variation 3. There was some delightful playing in the Valse of Variation 6, and a robust performance of Variation 8 where the fugal elements were carefully organised and delivered with panache.

In the Finale and Coda, played in the abridged version without the development section, the musicians revelled in a fiery exchange of instrumental flair. The virtuosity that characterised their playing in the brisk moments of the Smetana returned here with great effect. The Melbourne audience gave the Sitkovetsky Trio a rare standing ovation.

Hoang Pham

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Sitkovetsky Trio

27th March, 2014

As part of its Australian tour the Sitkovetsky Trio presented a second program at the Melbourne Recital Centre, including a Carl Vine work commissioned for Musica Viva Australia by Julian Burnside AO QC in honour of the composer’s 60th birthday. This was a feature of both programs which, on this night also included Piano Trio in G minor, Op.15 by Smetana and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A-minor, Op.50, In Memory of a Great Artist.

As the Sitkovetsky Trio bears his name it was perhaps fitting that violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky articulated the first strong phrase of Smetana’s Piano Trio  – but it was not long before he was joined by cellist Leonard Elschenbroich with runs in seemingly perfect sync, and the strong but expressive piano of Wu Qian. The concert had thus hardly begun before we had a model of the Sitkovetsky Trio style that was the foundation for an evening of entirely satisfying listening.

The second subject showed the cello to be as resonant as the violin had been, this time accompanied by a delicate piano that held everything together … and a beautifully expressive violin. Whatever the dynamics the strings were virtuosic, given some relief when the piano took over articulation of the theme. Before the end of this movement there was a lovely duet between cello and piano, but it was all three who demonstrated their masterly control of rhythm tempo and power as the movement ended. (Some in the audience could not help but clap).

The second movement began unusually with an Allegro but progressed to an Andante with a gentle rocking movement, yet strong and unsentimental. The violin appeared to soar yet this was truly a Trio for all players as the maestoso with double bowing and low piano chords gave a richness of sound. Three strong notes ended this lovely movement.

As so often with Smetana, the third movement, Presto, at first set a cracking pace for the finale. Unusually, though, the warmth of the music and the connection between players made this seem more like a second movement with all its depth of feeling. (It was a reminder that this work was written when the composer was grieving for the loss of his young daughter).

The Finale proved a showcase for every dynamic, every time signature, every possibility for connection between the three players. The music seemed to simply roll out from the stage, perfectly in sync right through to the piano-led climax.

Having just experienced and left the world of Smetana we had a great opportunity to hear from the composer Carl Vine about the concept for his Piano Trio “The Village” It was interesting to hear how the work played out in 12 episodes being, in the composer’s words, “a village of ideas” and comprising several ideas within each section.

The Sitkovetsky Trio excelled in this interesting and accessible work with opportunities both to highlight each instrument and also to build on the synchronicity and understanding that all three had demonstrated in the first work. The piano was often in dialogue with the strings and was given opportunity to signal changes in the work, while the strings excelled in a pizzicato duet and in interesting effects, including at one point an almost whistling effect.

As with the Smetana, the Carl Vine piece left the audience wanting more – but of course this was to come after interval with the Tchaikovsky piano trio. In a well-conceived program this was the perfect ending especially as it is lengthy without being tiring.

Loss was evidently an inspiration for this work as well as the first in the concert, in this case Tchaikovsky’s close friend Nikolai Rubinstein. The work deals with both loss and happy memories that the composer; hence the first movement was elegiac with Wu Qian’s flowing piano, Elschenbroich’s rich cello and of course, Sitkovetsky’s heart-stopping violin. The minor key lent a sense of sorrow but not despair.

The work is notable for moments of great strength, for example in the chord progressions that suggest Orthodox church music, possibly for a funeral. Wu Qian was again able to show the strength as well as the sensitivity of her playing. But one cannot separate the achievement of the three instruments, so beautifully entwined by the score and their performance.

Notable in the final movement alone were a lively staccato piano before a fuller Slavic treatment of the theme, a fugue, a well-observed crescendo and a delicate frolic from the piano almost like a Chopin waltz. Sitkovetsky’s plaintive violin solo led to the final declamatory variations that tested all three players before the extended climax that ended the work.

The applause was generous and heartfelt but I was pleased that the Sitkovetsky Trio chose not to play an encore. We had already been given an embarrassment of riches in a beautifully conceived program from a deservedly famous international Trio.

Suzanne Yanko

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Passionate renditions of Smetana, Vine and Tchaikovsky from the Sitkovetksy Trio

2nd April 2014

The Sitkovetsky Trio is the latest in a series of exciting young ensembles brought to Australia by Musica Viva. The three musicians, Russian violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, and Chinese pianist Wu Qian, were all students at the exclusive Yehudi Menuhin School, although it was only some time later in 2007 that they began performing together, and they still have busy careers as soloists. While their musical personalities are clearly as different as their costumes were on Monday evening, a deep mutual understanding pervades their music making. Each was comfortable taking the lead, and in yielding to another with a more interesting line. As is right and proper, the needs of the music trumped the demands of the ego, and the result was music-making that was more than satisfying.

As is not uncommon for a group of young musicians, the group focused on overtly emotional 19th century works, paired with the commissioned composition by Carl Vine. Their first Sydney concert featured elegiac trios by Smetana and Tchaikovsky, both of which were delivered with relish. Smetana’s G minor trio, written in the aftermath of the loss of his daughter, begins with a rhapsodic passage for solo violin, delivered stylishly by Sitkovetsky. The cellist had an equally lovely sound in the warmer second theme. Wu exhibited virtuosity where it was called for, and brought a pearly Chopinesque quality to her brief solo passage before the return of the opening theme. The three captured the troubled opening of the second movement, and the declamatory major-mode episode in the middle had the right quality of inexorability. The thrilling opening to the finale showcased the pianist’s repeated notes to particular effect, and after each calm oasis (which included a funeral march) this drive was re-captured.

The last time Carl Vine addressed patrons of Musica Viva in this same hall, he had the unpleasant task of informing his listeners of an injury to one of the performers, and the consequent alteration of the program. It was no doubt as much to his relief as ours that he appeared only to provide a short introduction to his new work, The Village. As he explained it, the work stemmed from the technical problem of how to ensure coherence without relying on existing formal structures (such as the presentation-development-reprise paradigm that underlies sonata form). His solution was to deploy a set of ideas which come into varying associations with each other as composition progresses. In his written notes, he explained this more metaphorically: “a central character is reshaped through a continuous series of musical encounters”, an idea which sounds similar in the abstract to that used in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy.

Even on a first hearing, one could identify several of these cells through the twelve episodes: grace-note figures, rocking chordal patterns, and a frequent preoccupation with shimmer and liquidity (the opening sounded like Szymanowski to me, and there were other moments that gave me a fleeting impression of Debussy). Mingled with this were some more abrasive moments: the piano had a menacing ostinato at one stage, and the piece finished in frenzy of excitement with an abrupt final plunge à la Ravel’s La valse. Here, as in the rest of the programme, the Sitkovetskys playing exuded commitment, and the string players luxuriated in their cantilena passages. The pianist showed off her dexterity in some delectable shimmering runs towards the end.

The second half was given over entirely to Tchaikovsky’s enormous Piano Trio in A minor, written in memory of Nikolai Rubinstein, the “great artist” mentioned in the subtitle. The cellist Elschenbroich provided a thoughtful introduction in which he described the first movement as exuding a feeling of loss, whereas the second deals with “the life remembered”. The restless opening gained in energy through the transition before the false hope of the triumphant E major theme, which was followed by a more lyrical theme from the piano, swathed in arpeggios. The violinist entered into the spirit of the 19th century to the extent of making audible slides when shifting position (never other than tasteful), something I didn’t hear so much from the cellist.

A lovely sense of stillness was created in the coda of this work. Throughout the lengthy series of variations in the second movement, one had a strong sense of emotional commitment as well as technical excellence from the musicians. Highlights were the dance-like (almost Gounod-esque) variation 6, and the mazurka for solo piano that was variation 10. Despite the programme note informing us otherwise, the fugal variation 8 was played. By the time we had reached the funereal bell-tolling at the end of hugely extended variation 12 (almost another movement), there was a distinct sense of catharsis among players and listeners.

David Larkin

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Music Review: Musica Viva: Sitkovetsky Trio

5th April 2014

Presented by Musica Viva and Adelaide International Cello Festival

A Russian, a Chinese, and a German walk into a town hall. However, what they did next was not remotely akin to a joke. The Adelaide Town Hall hosted an evening of chamber music splendour as Musica Viva and the Adelaide International Cello Festival presented the Sitkovetsky Trio as part of their national tour.

Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Wu Qian (piano) and Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), appeared like the United Nations delegates of a chamber music convention, opening with Bedřich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor, op 15. Composed after two of his daughters died within one year, of tuberculosis and scarlet fever, the trio in three movements is understandably thick with emotional anguish, and was reflected on the faces of the intense performers.

The concert highlight began with Carl Vine introducing his own Piano Trio ‘The Village’. Most people are lucky to just get cake, but in honour of Vine’s 60th birthday, human rights and refugee advocate, and arts super-patron Julian Burnside AO QC, gave something so much better; a commission for Musica Viva Australia.

‘The Village’ has twelve episodes of related melodies and harmonies, rather than formal structure or movements, and develops a central character through a continuous series of musical encounters. From the dramatic and beautiful opening, the pizzicato sections and exquisite dreamlike aspects contrasted feelings of lonely isolation within the network of relationships. Performed with sensitivity and masterful conversational style, ‘The Village’ is a triumph, was enthusiastically received, and left me wanting to visit Vine’s village frequently.

Leonard Elschenbroich then took time and care with well-chosen words to introduce Pyotr II’yich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, op 50. He explained the trio were looking forward to taking the audience on a journey with the elegy to Tchaikovsky’s friend Nikolai Rubinstein, who died of tuberculosis aged 46 in 1881. Doing exactly what they hoped for, the trio portrayed every inch of beauty and pain in a bitter-sweet, poignant and emotive performance; the elegiac theme, repeated to an extent explicable only by Tchaikovsky’s grief-triggered-obsession, never failing to leave its intended depressing mark.

Bookending with two elegies and leaving a concert emotionally spent rather than uplifted, had some around me commenting on the order of play, however, the Sitkovestky Trio performed with the military precision of a union with great history and familiarity, and their theatrical performances left a lasting impression of great joy.

Gordon Forester

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Sikovetsky Trio brings Vine’s village to musical life

4th April 2014

Two special occasions are being celebrated in Musica Viva’s current national tour by the Sitkovetsky Trio. One, collaboration with the Adelaide International Cello Festival; their cellist Leonard Elschenbroich has been a soloist in the Festival’s Lunchtime Series.

Two, the 60th birthday of artistic director Carl Vine, marked by a commission, his first piano trio The Village.

The Sitkovetskys met as 11-year-olds when they (one each from Russia, Germany and China) all turned up at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey.

According to Vine’s written and spoken words about his piece, The Village is neither pictorial nor specific, rather a musical allegory of the way that each of us forms our own “village’’ (go away, Facebook) — this means people who actually know and like each other.

All his segments are related and have elements in common, like a beautiful patchwork quilt. The allegory worked.

Although “village” has a tone more English than Australian, the concept leaves our imaginations free to create our own contexts. Sitkovetsky played this intriguing and satisfying adventure with obvious pleasure and conviction.

Rarely does Music Viva give cause for queries about its programs.

Examples abound of composers pouring out their grief for loss of loved ones in compositions.

One of these cathartic (often for listeners and players as well as composers) works in a concert, why not? But two?

There was no doubting the personal engagement of the strings and pianist with Smetana’s lament for a darling daughter, dead from scarlet fever at the tender age of four, Piano Trio in G minor op 15.

Emotions seesawed. Dark ones, grief, despair, building to anger, resentment, rage. Light ones, recalling the little one’s games, her charm.

Enough angst for one program, surely.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor op 50, In Memory of a Great Artist, pays homage to Nikolai Rubenstein, pianist, teacher, founder of the Moscow Conservatorium.

Lots of lovely silky arpeggios and a Chopinish mazurka from Wu Qian’s piano, songs of love and mourning from the strings, but in all too many, too much. The message was clear very early on. No need to quote the Chopin funeral march. A cliche too far.

Elizabeth Silsbury

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Piano shines in Sitkovetsky Trio

9th April 2014

Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio is one of the lengthiest works in the chamber music canon. And when it is given a less-than-convincing reading, it can sound endless. Not so on Tuesday when, in the hands of the Sitkovetsky Trio, time flew.

The ensemble's ability to pierce to the heart of whatever it essays was gratifyingly in evidence here. Each of the three musicians is clearly a virtuoso in the sense of being able to come confidently to grips with even the most demanding of music scores with seemingly effortless ability. But this in itself is only part of the story.

Crucially, the players have the ability to set aside their individuality in favour of a corporate musical entity - and in this sense, I cannot recall any other similarly constituted ensemble now before the public that can equal it in this sense.

In so finely judged a reading, it is perhaps invidious to single out individuals but it would be ungracious not to particularly praise the dramatic virtuosity and gratifying interpretative insights of pianist Wu Qian.

There was a near-perfect assessment of the notes in the brief, hushed funeral march that brings the work to a close.

A program well off the beaten track included Carl Vine's Trio The Village. It abounds in aural delights, the sound equivalent of looking into a slowly revolving kaleidoscope. Abounding in fascinating, constantly changing detail, it's a work without a dull moment - and the trio presented it with immense flair and technical finesse. I'd like to listen to it again.

In Smetana's Piano Trio in G minor, the composer sublimates both grief at the loss of a young daughter and anguish concerning his failing hearing. I was deeply moved by the sincerity that informed every moment of the performance; it was a reading that radiated the despair that lies at its heart. Certainly, the work's innate quality of sorrow was fully established, the players expounding the work's intricate emotional argument in a way that was beyond criticism.

Neville Cohn

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Live Review: Sitkovetsky Trio (Chamber Music's Harry, Ron and Hermione)

10th April 2014

There are some performers that are so perfect it discourages you from ever picking up your instrument again. This wasn’t the case with the very talented Sitkovetsky Trio, however. Musica Viva’s slogan of ‘Music to Inspire’ was never truer than it was on Tuesday night at the Perth Concert Hall.

It took Alexander Sitkovetsky two notes of Smetana’s Piano Trio to have the audience in the palm of his hand. Alexander’s bow stroke cannot be faulted and as a result his violin sung every single note. Not mentioning a vibrato that we students (and a few professionals) would die for.

According to the program, violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Wu Qian have played together since they were children studying in the Yehudi Menuhin School. A bit like the Harry, Ron of Hermione of chamber music, the three musicians displayed an amazing friendship. Alexander and Leonard would stare one another down, almost leaping off their chairs to get at one another. Wu would then give a huge downbeat, breaking apart the tension and setting the group in a different direction. They moved and breathed every phrase together.

It seemed that the trio were more comfortable performing Smetana and Tchaikovsky rather than the Vine. Perhaps this is due to their musical tastes, or the stress of working for a living composer. Regardless, their tones and playing techniques seemed a lot more suited to longer Romantic melodies rather than rhythm-based ostinatos. This is not to say that Vine would have been disappointed with the Sitkovetsky Trio’s performance – quite the opposite. The techniques in the Vine, including difficult double stops and harmonics, were very impressive and played brilliantly.

The Tchaikovsky was clearly the trio’s main piece. Leonard even introduced it as dear to their hearts, and one could hear in his voice the sadness when he said it would be the last time they played it in Australia. Again, the theme of friendship was touched upon as the cellist explained the depth of grief in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, and how when they played it they “feel like we have been through something together”. The facial expressions and body language of the three during performance suggested this completely the case.

It was, however, the end of the concert that was the most moving. Even time itself stopped to hear the last few piano chords of Tchaikovsky’s Trio. The three players, upon finishing, did not move for what seemed like an eternity. They kept the audience suspended, and only let us go when they felt that we had witnessed properly the tragic emotion of the piece and the ‘something’ the trio went through to perform. It was truly, truly amazing.

My one and only criticism of the performance is the two string players’ process of putting on mutes. Understandably, neither player wants to keep their mute on behind the bridge because of the buzzing or rattling it creates. This is completely fine. The cellist kept his next to his spike which could be a little distracting when he put it on because he had to reach all the way to the bottom of his cello. However, that isn’t a huge drama. But did Alexander really have to keep his mute in his back pocket? In a sensitive work such as the Tchaikovsky, any bodily movements not directly related to the music itself tend to detract from it. Although Alexander did a very good job of subtly applying his mute, I felt it didn’t manage to avoid the attention of audience members.

The Sitkovetsky Trio performs once more in Australia in Canberra on Thursday April 10. These musical magicians cannot come more highly recommended from their Perth audience (all mutes aside). Canberra audiences will also have the delight of hearing Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B flat, Op. 97 instead of the Tchaikovsky Trio.

Gabrielle Ruttico

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