Tier3 Trio [Daniel Grimwood (piano), Joseph Wolfe (violin), Jonathan Ayling (cello)]
Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A minor Op.50 (1881-2)
St Giles’ Cripplegate, London
Friday 9 June 2023
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Summer Music in City Churches is a week-long festival in London’s Square Mile, bringing a wide range of classical music to the capital’s audiences in a format that brings fond reminiscences of the much-missed City of London Festival.
For their fifth year, the City Churches concerts run under the theme Legends & Heroes, inspiring creative programmes from solo piano (Mark Bebbington’s Liszt-themed hour) through to a centenary performance of Walton’s Façade and a welcome pairing of Haydn’s Nelson Mass and Bliss’s Pastoral: Lie Strewn The White Flocks, closing the festival on Thursday 15 June.
St Giles’ Cripplegate played host to the Goliath of piano trios, the Tier3 Trio bringing us Tchaikovsky’s sole but very substantial essay in the genre. The composer had tried his hand at the format within the confines of his Piano Concerto no.2, writing the slow movement almost exclusively for violin, cello and piano. Here, he seems to go the other way, writing music for trio that sounds orchestral both in concept and sound. The piece is a sizeable memorial, the subtitle ‘À la mémoire d’un grand artiste’ a recognition of Tchaikovsky’s great friend and mentor, pianist Nikolay Rubinstein.
The challenge facing Tier3 – named after the pandemic conditions in which they were formed – was to get their sound to fill the roomy acoustic of St Giles without it losing detail, and this they commendably achieved. The balance between the instruments was ideal, thanks to Daniel Grimwood’s sensitive and clear phrasing at the keyboard, as well as careful attention to dynamic detail from violinist Joseph Wolfe and cellist Jonathan Ayling.
This is such a passionate piece that it would be easy to peak too soon, but this interpretation was borne of experience and a clear love for Tchaikovsky’s music. The sizeable first movement, clocking in at over 20 minutes, was ideally paced and compelling throughout. A sense of sorrow pervaded the soulful opening, with a profound solo from Ayling, but gradually chinks of light began to show, especially in Grimwood’s heroic second theme, block chords pealing like bells.
Despite its orchestral outbursts the trio does contain music of great tenderness, and these were found in sweetly toned violin and doleful cello, set against arpeggiated chords from Grimwood’s piano – a telling episode before the return of the main theme, radiating great sorrow.
The second and third movements effectively merge into a huge finale, Tchaikovsky presenting a Theme with 11 variations and a vast coda of boundless invention and variety. Here they kept the audience on the edge of their seats.
Early on there was brilliant virtuosity from Grimwood, the tumbling variations of the third variation giving it a balletic quality. These led into a passionate cello solo from Ayling, immediately contrasted by celesta-like sonorities from the upper range of the piano. An appropriately heroic seventh variation led to a fugue of impressive clarity and dexterity, before the figurations of the ninth variation unexpectedly conjured the vision of flowers falling onto a coffin.
A quirky tenth variation and relatively serene counterpart led us to the coda, an emphatic and exuberant theme surging forward. Here the players were at the limit but rose to the occasion magnificently, emotions close to the surface, before the final twist when the music returned to the minor key. Here there were parallels to the funeral march from Chopin’s Piano Sonata no.2 before the music gradually and respectfully subsided to silence.
This was an extremely fine performance of a piece whose impact remains considerable, an outpouring keenly conveyed to the St. Giles’ audience by players relishing the experience. As an encore Tier3 made a most imaginative and suitable choice, giving us a the fourth of Widor’s short Pieces en Trio. Titled Sérénade, it was a charming complement to the sunshine outside.
You can read more about Summer Music In City Churches at the festival website – and click on the artist name to read more about Tier3 Trio.