WELLESLEY -- Triple Helix Piano Trio had to postpone its all-Russian program last February because of a blizzard. On Sunday night the weather wasn't much better, so Houghton Memorial Chapel wasn't as crowded as it usually is when the group plays. Nevertheless the trio delivered blazing, blistering performances of works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich that earned two standing ovations.
The first of them came for the Tchaikovsky Trio, which Triple Helix played before intermission. This is a glorious piece that is sometimes performed simply to display virtuosity, with a little bit of slobbering thrown in. But the experienced players (violinist Bayla Keyes, cellist Rhonda Rider, and pianist Lois Shapiro) have been together for 11 seasons now, and no one would expect that approach from them. They perform at a white-hot point where instinct and intellect intersect.
Their superbly played interpretation was fatalistic, intense, and noble in the first movement. The variations of the second movement were full of vivid individual character that ultimately coalesced in a return to the weeping mode of the beginning. The performance delivered on both a moment-to-moment and a cumulative level.
The Tchaikovsky was balanced by the great Shostakovich Trio from 1944, which Triple Helix preceded by a novelty, a recently rediscovered trio from Shostakovich's student days, composed when he was 17. The piece's ambitious cinematic form -- full of abrupt jump-cuts -- is more interesting than its derivative musical substance.
The big Trio was composed 62 years after the Tchaikovsky in a Russia that was vastly different but in many ways the same. The mood of the piece is also tragic; the composer had just learned about the Nazi death camps.
Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich put on different masks in order to survive, masks that intermittently appear in their music. But what makes these pieces memorable are the moments when the composers drop the masks.
Triple Helix discovered those moments and delivered them with integrity and intensity.