Pianist Jeremy Denk and violinist Joshua Bell, both Americans with lofty international cred, are hardly strangers to Santa Barbara stages. Denk has played here many times, was an acclaimed director of the Ojai Music Festival in 2014, and has since joined the Music Academy of the West faculty, making him a star summering in our midst. Bell has been an annual visitor for years now, in various incarnations. But they are different animals: Denk embraces contemporary music and ideas; Bell tends to eschew such things and can seem like a buttoned-down conservative (despite his squirrely, swaying stage manner).
But there they were, odd bedfellows joined by master British cellist Steven Isserlis, in concert at The Granada Theatre last week, hosted by UCSB Arts & Lectures. They made some beautiful music together on a program that was at least half-inspiring. Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor opened the evening on a meek note but was followed by the evening’s apex — Shostakovich’s 1944 vintage Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, played with moving intensity by the trio. Written at the end of WWII, it is alternately spiky, anguished, playful, and elegiac (in the largo, whose haunting theme and tolling chords return at work’s end), and archetypally Shostakovich-ian in spirit and letter.
After intermission, Rachmaninoff’s “Trio élégiaque No. 1” was less moving, a last romantic swoon lavished with extra vibrato by Bell. Another highlight salvaged the second half: Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor, circa 1914 (another world war bookend, at the start of WWI), is fed by a subtle propulsion beneath its sometimes-gauzy surfaces and shifty harmonic gears. It can be feisty and solemn by turns, and it waxes triumphant in its finale. Likewise, this odd-fellow power trio has its own triumphant endgame.