Above: Z.E.N Trio (left to right) Esther Yoo, Zhang Zuo and Narek Hakhnazaryan. Photo Credit: Clinton Bradbury.

The streamlined format of piano trio music-making rocketed to popularity some centuries back, due to its svelte expressive capabilities with wide range of colours possible from its compact unit.

Z.E.N Trio’s latest programming for its inaugural national tour with Musica Viva illustrates the exciting results which can occur when the piano trio genre is manipulated by innovative composers.

Works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries extend the typical trio soundscape well past its timbral origins and formal structures from times past.

This concert concluded with the sprawling six-movement offering which is Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ Trio, occupying the concert’s second half entirely.

This work’s roller-coaster of changing notions or thoughts and succession of quick-change mood flips from sunny to sadder was as fresh and popular now as it was when the composer played it in premiere during the late nineteenth century.

This concert’s first half immersed us immediately in piano trio music from recent times to right now. It started off with the beautiful adaptations of Armenian musics in Arno Babajanian’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in F-sharp minor (1952). It’s fine, delicate renderings for the trio instruments are in careful combination throughout this composition. This performance exploited each solo and group line as well as each member’s wealth  of options for expression of their solo voice.

Above: Z.E.N Trio’s national tour concluded in Sydney on August 22. Photo Credit: Clinton Bradbury.

In this work’s opening to start off the whole concert, the Z.E.N Trio (Zhang Zuo, piano, Esther Yoo, violin and Narek Haknazaryan, cello) launched into high emotion as they seamlessly redefined intimacy in this powerful work and the others to follow it.

This excellent musical intimacy was supplied in Babajanian’s trio through stunning unisons as well as careful, colourful balance of the exciting textures. The composition and this performance allowed solo lines to be ably supported and enhanced and well as empathy between players and  to the composer’s expressive vision being so exquisitely on point.

The individual musicianship of the three players was able to shine in this way. Esther Yoo’s hauntingly suspended violin line in the second movement was a formidable case of thi, mirrored by shorter, equally well-delivered fragments on highlighted cello.

In evidence during this work was some scintillating soft piano layers courtesy of Zhang Zuo. Her chamber music keyboard sense and brilliant roar during solo moments were of super-hero standard throughout this and all other works in the programme.

This was a rewarding exposure to the Armenian composer.  I found it especially so after Z.E.N Trio drew us into their new-vogue intimacy for a firecracker final-movement finish to this trio, an important modern European work in the canon. I instantly craved a re-hearing of it or access to  the recording.

The commissioned local work at this Musica Viva event followed. Matthew Laing’s Little Cataclysms brought writing for the piano trio well up to date. Complex instrumental techniques to uniquely enhance cantabile moments and so many  morphs of articulation and concepts of texture were tailored so well to individual instruments and entire ensemble alike.

Laing is obviously an intelligent, effective composer. He displayed in this world premiere a high level of solid, calm, modern expressionism and  the ability to create simple, simply beautiful and fresh ways for the piano trio voice to touch us deeply.

Above : Matthew Laing, composer of ‘Little Cataclysms’ (2022), commissioned for Musica Viva Australia. Matthew is also a Musica Viva FutureMaker for 2021 – 2023. Photo Credit: Clinton Bradbury.

Advanced filigree of string harmonics, string effects, sparse clusters in accompaniment and a clever use of instruments across short, sharp and slick soundscapes made Little Cataclysms a riveting composition as well as an exemplary promotion of the resources at hand.

This world premiere was a satisfying postlude to the treatment of all trio instruments so equally and equally-effectively, as in the event’s opening Babajanian work from the 1950s.

Little Cataclysms reflected and refracted both the subtle portrayal of extreme emotion across the small ensemble as heard in the Babajanian trio.It also referred to the structure of greater than three short movements in a satisfying, shifting emotional thread that pre-empted the final Dvořák work’s multiple movement style of vibrant vignette.

If this trio’s calming brand, ‘Z.E.N’, wasn’t an acronym for the instrumentalist’s names it may well be something like ‘Zap with Effective Nuance’. The neat chamber music electricity created through the contrasts in the  programme’s  final  Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ Trio impressed us at all times . Such a  roller coaster ride of notions and mood changes in  this well-known work was made to shine and crackle anew.

If  this rendering of Dvořák’s signature open and expansive  gesture switching  so quickly to introspective moments of aching intensity wasn’t enough of a showcase for the trio’s  technical and interpretative virtuosity, the musicians then sent us home and ended their six city strong tour with a robust trio version of Khatchaturian’s Sabre Dance.

This gem of an encore celebrated the trio’s recent hard work, their collective talents and the estatic, emotionally keen nature of Armenian music we would do well to hear more of on our concert stages.

Musica Viva’s next national concert tour starts on September 19. It features Avi Avital playing mandolin and cellist Giovanni Sollima.