Is there a more delicious hunk of programming this entire season than the two Schubert piano trios being played at the Curtis Institute of Music?
It's possible to speak of Tuesday night's performance of the E Flat and B Flat trios in present tense because they are still, in a way, going on. Curtis streamed the concert via Facebook Live and is extending its reach for a week by putting the entire two hours on the school's Facebook and YouTube pages.
The evening had the feeling of an event in part because of the presence of Noah Bendix-Balgley, the relatively young (33) violinist plucked from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2014 to be a first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic (one of three with that title). Bendix-Balgley, pianist Robert Levin, and cellist Peter Wiley spent two days in a Curtis residency, working with students on instrumental matters and chamber music principles presumably manifest in this performance.
Some musicians are better teachers than performers, and vice versa. As an influence, though, Bendix-Balgley — who studied at Indiana University and the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München — was no doubt valuable to have around in the classroom, as he was Tuesday night in Field Concert Hall. His is not a huge sound, nor is he given to dramatic gestures. But beyond the solid technique is an old-school sweetness. There's none of that wide vibrato that you hear quite a bit in these parts. Rather, at least on this night in this repertoire, Bendix-Balgley tended to start many a note with no vibrato at all, and then warm the sound just slightly.
If this is a violinist who wants to make the listener lean forward, the pianist has no such concerns. Levin, widely known for his musicology, bordered on aggressive. In the Trio in E Flat Major, D. 929, piano runs sometimes started or ended with a pounding note that seemed out of place given the dynamic range of Levin's colleagues. (The piano sound was better blended, though it still had an edge, in a morning-after spin on Facebook Live.)
There was much else about Levin's playing that I loved. The performers were largely of a single mind and spirit in the Trio in B Flat Major, D. 898 — the slightly military-march springiness of the first movement with its near-Wagnerian penultimate stretch, a second movement that lulls more sweetly than any lullaby, and the crisp folklike third. Stylistic touches were beautifully worked out.
Of all the evening's strong moments, none surpassed the last few minutes of that lullaby. When Bendix-Balgley refloated the main theme near the end (at 35:04, Facebook fans), he did it with such control — sustaining direction and tone, but barely — it reached a peace both deep and rare.
In fact, the entire movement is worth repeated visits. Go ahead, you need it; social media for all of its promise has turned out to be mostly an endless stream of human anxiety and misery. When was the last time you found a couple of minutes of unalloyed joy on Facebook?