BARBICAN PIANO TRIO

SATURDAY 18th OCTOBER 2014

 

AN ADMIRABLE BLEND

Beethoven's opus 1 Piano Trios, published in 1795, were designed to establish the young composer in the competitive milieu of Vienna simultaneously as a master of chamber music and as a piano virtuoso.  It is easy to picture the twenty-five-year-old Beethoven eliciting gasps of astonishment and admiration from audiences as he flew through the sparkling piano part.  However in the case of the middle trio of the set of three, it pays to look beyond the virtuosic gloss of the keyboard fireworks to the piece's eloquent soul.  Here we find music of mature and amiable lyricism, practically devoid of the offbeat jerking and twitching which dogs much of the rest of his output, where melodies are allowed to unfold in their own time.  So it is in this, perhaps the least showy of the three Piano Trios, that the more perceptive members of the Viennese public would have found the greatest promise in the composer newly arrived from Bonn.  The Barbican Trio approached this rich work with the maturity of a group deeply experienced in Beethoven's output, and a subtle and beautifully measured account ensured that we could enjoy the work’s sparkling virtuosity and more profound content.

James Kirby's diffident keyboard technique was also to the fore in the diaphanous textures and exotic harmonies of Ravel's beguiling Piano Trio.  A piano part, often written in three staves to allow room for the bewildering detail to be notated and at the same time peppered with accidentals, looks like a nightmare to play, but complete assurance shone through in this performance as the keyboard rippled away in accompaniment to plangent cello and violin melodies.  Influenced by various folk sources including the Basque tradition, this is music which is French to the heart and which helped along with the music of Debussy and Fauré to establish a uniquely French voice in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The great Eb Piano Trio by Schubert is one of the crowning achievements of a composer also active in Vienna, but who was fated to go to an early grave without hearing much of his music performed.  Remarkably in spite of this his musical style, both in symphonic and chamber works, continued to develop throughout his life and culminated in this major expression of his compositional genius.  Profoundly melodic throughout, it comes as a surprise to find that the most memorable melody, which dominates the slow movement and makes an inevitable return in the finale, is in fact a Swedish folk tune which the composer is borrowing.  Haunting in its 18th-century lugubriousness, it is the distant cousin of the equally haunting oboe melody in the second movement of the great C-major Symphony, and it stalks through the trio like a Baroque funeral march.  It is perhaps too easy to trace premonitions of death in Schubert's late works, but this particularly chilling presence is hard to sidestep.

The Barbican Trio's measured but expressive approach to Schubert's masterpiece made for a moving and memorable conclusion to a concert of varied but powerful chamber music.  Particularly impressive was the consistently superb balance they achieved, allowing Music Nairn's full-voiced Steinway grand piano to blend perfectly with the two stringed instruments, sensitively and expressively played by Robert Max and Sophie Lockett.  The substantial audience in Nairn's Community Centre seemed fully aware of the treat they had just witnessed, and applause was enthusiastic and sustained.

D James Ross


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