Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Reinventing the piano trio

britten-sinfonia

Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Wigmore Hall, 4 March 2015.

If chamber music is not your forte, then I cannot imagine a better way into it than by the Britten Sinfonia’s ‘At Lunch’ concert series, held in London, Cambridge and Norwich.

Each program explores works written for a particular instrumental combination, but always includes a world premiere from a living composer. The informal atmosphere is both performer and audience friendly, and as a diversion from work or a pause in the middle of the day, the experience is ideal.

This second concert of the 2015 season chose to look at the piano trio, a misleading label since the standard combination of instruments for the trio is piano, violin and cello. Yet, as the program observed, the form is less often used by contemporary composers, and has a heritage of works running from Haydn in the mid-18th century through to 20th century composers such as Shostakovich, who featured here.

What the Britten Sinfonia did really well was to present possible solutions to the form, which here included adding percussion. To begin we heard Lou Harrison’s Varied Trio, for violin, piano and percussion. Harrison, an American composer who lived from 1917-2003, took as his inspiration the music of a number of different countries including China and Indonesia, and his original approach here included a set of rice bowls played with chopsticks. The resultant sounds were often soothing and rather wonderful, drifting as though on the breeze from percussionist Owen Gunnell, but with pianist Huw Watkins also reaching around inside the instrument to produce some unusual sounds. Completing the trio was violinist Thomas Gould, whose sweetly toned Elegy formed the third of the Varied Trio’s five movements and made it the emotional centre.

The new piece was from 22-year old composer Joey Roukens, who described his Lost in a surreal trip as ‘a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic 12-minute piece’. It was vividly coloured and brilliantly realised by the players, adding cellist Caroline Dearnley to their number. Early on the music cast spells of dappled light through harmonics on the strings and intriguing percussion sounds, but then a more mechanical energy took hold as though we were being transported by train to a place without a firm surface. With bags of reverberation and some enchanting sounds from the marimbas, this piece was consistently inventive and will be well worth hearing.

From the conventional piano trio legacy came one of its finest works in the 20th century, the Piano Trio no.2 by Shostakovich. This concentrated wartime work from 1944 is packed full of anguish, marking the death of the composer’s close friend Ivan Sollertinsky but also expressing outright anger at conflict and war. Gould, Dearnley and Watkins had no need for percussion here, not with the rhythmic profile Shostakovich establishes, but theirs was a keenly felt performance that left the listener in no doubt of the composer’s feelings and concerns.

A Spotify playlist containing the Varied trio and the Shostakovich Piano Trio no.2 can be accessed here:

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