A stab of a chord, then a dark, slowly spreading pool of dissonance: the opening motive of Gunther Schuller's new Piano Trio No. 3, premiered on Monday in Jordan Hall by the Gramercy Trio (violinist Sharan Leventhal, cellist Jonathan Miller, and pianist Randall Hodgkinson). At the age of 87, Schuller has written a piece that feels retro and youthful at the same time, working venerable veins of modernism with often bristling energy.
That opening idea, for instance: It was repeated a couple of times more, then stretched out into a rapid-fire telex of notes answered by a collage of expressionist tangles, ranging from emphatic to eerily distant — tropes familiar but still remarkably insistent. Even when the Trio seems to be turning toward the elegiac, a new surfeit of ideas burns through. The middle Largo movement starts off with a long, lean, keening violin solo, but as the other instruments enter, the discourse quickly builds to a dense, dramatic delirium — only to dissolve into a contemplative stretch of piano that starts the cycle over again.
The finale runs a fierce rhythmic motor up against an acidic, deconstructed beguine, but the core of the movement is given over to a reverie reminiscent of Schuller’s favorite proto-modernist, Charles Ives: sweet fragments of melody suspended over chromatically melting harmonies. It’s the friction of colliding epochs, all the cutting edges in Schuller’s arsenal deployed in provocative succession. The performers opted to play the whole thing twice, which didn’t feel too long in the least. And the performances themselves were very good indeed: sharp, moody, atmospheric.
The occasion was officially a New England Conservatory faculty recital by Hodgkinson, who framed the new piece with repertoire both recognized and rare. J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which opened the concert, undulated interestingly; Hodgkinson’s touch ranged from a sturdy Romanticism to a blurry Impressionism, and his lavish rubato created a sense of wandering through the museum of the work, pausing at junctures, hastening to highlights. He chased the Schuller with works by Gabriel Fauré — the Op. 34 Impromptu, a generous helping of easygoing 19th-century pianistic showiness, preceded by five of the Op. 103 Preludes, in which the French composer, late in life, took his impeccably suave style into harmonically exotic territories. It put Schuller in like-minded company: conscientious craftsmen with creative restlessness.