The Genesis of Minerva: Schumann and the Young Brahms – Minverva Piano Trio

minerva-piano-trio

Minerva Piano Trio (above): Michal Cwizewicz (violin), Richard Birchall (cello), Annie Yim (piano)

St John’s Smith Square, London; Sunday 23rd October, 2016

Schumann Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.63 (1847)

Birchall Contours (2014)

Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8a (original 1854 version)

A season-long residency as Young Artists at St John’s is enabling the Minerva Piano Trio to schedule several worthwhile recitals. None fitted the bill more than this afternoon’s programme, culminating in a rare revival for the First Piano Trio of Brahms as heard in its original version.

Completed when he was barely into his twenties, this is the only work from the outset of Brahms’s maturity to have survived essentially as it was conceived. That the composer substantially re-wrote it in 1889 (after his temporary ‘retirement’ from composition) but allowed the versions to co-exist suggests that, dissatisfied though he may have become with them, he was unable to suppress those earlier thoughts. One does not look to the 1854 version for formal unity or finesse, but it certainly has the edge in terms of expression and tonal cohesion.

The opening Allegro is as much about charting an emotional course through its constituent themes than fashioning them into a logical argument, yet such is the imaginative resource with which Brahms elaborates his material that the movement as it evolves becomes its own justification. The Minerva audibly appreciated this with playing as perceptive as the music required, then was equally inside the Scherzo with its alternately brusque and elegant ideas – and an intriguingly fugitive ending that the revision streamlines into something less arresting.

With its multiple allusions to the then nascent Lieder tradition, the Adagio casts a magnetic if unsettling spell and the Minerva accordingly brought out its exquisite ambiguity in full measure. No less impressive was a Finale which, irrespective of how convincing – or otherwise – is its reworking (and Clara Schumann’s strictures cannot be lightly dismissed), the audacious homecoming in B minor is here suffused with inevitability such as the older and wiser Brahms was unable to achieve by modulatory means alone: a QED in every sense.

A commanding performance, then, and the Minerva had been hardly less inside the idiom of Schumann’s own First Piano Trio at the start of this recital. Whether or not the emergence of his wife Clara’s masterly work for the medium just a year before was indeed the catalyst, the present piece harnesses those sombre hues often to the fore in Schumann’s later music with a textural translucency which never spills over into opacity. This, at least, was the impression left by a reading that plotted a resolute course through the discursive design of the opening movement then clarified the scherzo’s rhythmic intricacy without sacrificing its poise. The plangent ‘song without words’ that follows was seamlessly dovetailed into the finale, which unfolded with no lack of incident on its way to a decisive while tenuously affirmative close.

Coming between these expansive staples of the repertoire, Contours by the Minerva’s cellist Richard Birchall proved a diverting entity – its four brief movements amounting to a discreet unity that, with its evocative Nocturne and engaging Fast Waltz, confirmed a real grasp of this difficult medium. There was further music at the close – when, in response to generous applause, the Minerva gave an easeful reading of the Andante from Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor. An eloquent conclusion to an impressive recital by an ensemble which is clearly going places.

Richard Whitehouse

The Minerva Piano Trio returns to St John’s for further concerts on 9th March and 1st June 2017. Further information can be found at the St John’s website. You can hear more of the trio below:

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