Wigmore Mondays – Gould Piano Trio play Kirchner & Brahms

Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin), Richard Lester (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)

Kirchner Excerpts from Bunte Blätter Op.83 (1888) (1:48-16:40 on the broadcast link below)
Brahms Piano Trio no.1 in B major Op.8 (1854, revised 1888) (18:53-54:50)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 13 May 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

It was refreshing to hear the music of Theodor Kirchner in this concert, especially in the context of his friendship with the infinitely better known Johannes Brahms. Kirchner was a friend not just of Brahms but of Robert and Clara Schumann. His relative lack of lasting success is regrettable, due in part it seems to an addiction to gambling, yet his output includes a large amount of piano music. He has notably arranged both Brahms String Sextets for the piano trio combination, which suits his music well.

The Bunte Blätter (Coloured Leaves) is a collection of attractive miniatures that work well in concert, and the Gould Piano Trio chose seven of the twelve available for this concert. The first, Zwiegesang (from 1:48 on the broadcast link), is notable for the sweetly romantic notions of its duet between violin and cello. A Novellette (no.5, 3:49) takes a more playful air, while Mädchenlied (no.10, 6:30) is graceful and open. The Humoreske (no.2, 9:30) is bright, especially from the piano, but the Barcarola (no.7, 10:10) is much less charming than a normal example in this form would be – a real straight-faced affair.

Finally the Scherzino (no.4, 13:15) is a charming affair and the last piece, Abendmusik (14:13) has more obvious, heart on sleeve passion to complete a lovely set of miniatures, beautifully performed.

The short forms contrasted nicely with Brahms’ Piano Trio no.1 in B major Op.8, a much more substantial affair. Lasting 36 minutes in this performance, with a judicious use of repeats in the score, it is one of several powerhouses the composer published early on in his life. He returned to it nearly 35 years after composition, applying some extensive editing to all the movements save the second.

The first few bars (from 18:53) give an immediate impression of Brahms’s scope and ambition – and it is worth bearing in mind that this version is still truncated from what he originally wrote. Richard Lester’s expressive cello melody is beautifully phrased, and the ardent writing is handled with an ideal balance of romance and poise. The aching second theme (21:23) offers a nice contrast, after which the music becomes fraught, before the trio’s entire first section is repeated. Elements of mystery come into the middle section, where Brahms develops his melodic ideas, before a return to the theme brings stability (29:25 onwards). Pianist Benjamin Frith should be praised here for his combination of technical control and full expression.

The second movement, a Scherzo, has a detached theme first heard low down in the register (33:48). Contrasting with this are sweeping contours for the flowing ‘trio’ section, its long phrases responding well to the strings’ unison (36:57), though the tuning is tricky here. There is a lovely blend of light and shade at the end, a respite from the heady music of the first movement.

The slow movement (40:44) is intimate and heartfelt, with some particularly touching moments from the strings, from the cello melody with which it begins. Set in the ‘home’ key of B major, it unfolds with a natural grace, but also hints at the romantic thoughts of the young composer. It is a movement in which to completely lose yourself before the drama of the finale begins at 48:25.

This movement is a little unconventional for its time, Brahms reverting to the minor key in music notable for its stormy passion. Despite the heaviness of texture at times, Frith’s lightness of touch again helps focus the phrasing of the melodies and the substantial counterpoint that underpins them. By the end there is a powerful feeling of a victory hard won, the emphatic closing chords sealing the deal.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, in the available versions:

The full Kirchner collection of pieces can be heard here:

Meanwhile the original version of the Brahms Piano Trio no.1 can be heard on this album below from Trio Opus 8, seemingly named after the piece itself:

Early Brahms is notable for its stature and heroic passion – and the playlist below brings together some of the works falling into this category, including the Piano Sonatas nos.1 & 3, the String Sextet no.1 in B flat major & the wonderful Serenade no.1 in D major for orchestra:

Gould Piano Trio play Schubert at the Wigmore Hall

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Gould Piano Trio [l-r Lucy Gould (violin), Benjamin Frith (piano), Alice Neary (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, Tuesday 31st January, 2017

Schubert Notturno in E flat, D897 (c1826); Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat, D899 (c1826-7); Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat, D929 (1827)

schubert

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

That the Gould Piano Trio shared its 25th anniversary with Schubert’s 220th birthday made it all but inevitable that these musicians marked the event with a recital of his music. The exact order of the piano trios may be debatable, but what is never in doubt is their stature on a level with those other chamber works – the final String Quartet and the String Quintet – as among the crowning achievements of the composer’s last years. Equally evident were those subtle but pronounced contrasts in form and expression between works written just months apart.

If the B flat Trio is indeed the earlier of the two, this is reflected in its looking back – albeit obliquely – to the more relaxed manner of Schubert’s music up to 1820. Not that there is any lack of gravitas in this music – witness the stealthy momentum accrued in the initial Allegro’s eventful development, impressively maintained here; in contrast to those tenser emotions of the E Flat Trio’s Allegro with its more angular themes and combative development, whose intensifying reprise then agitated coda might have been realized here with greater impetus.

Arguably the highlights in both these performances were the Andante slow movements. In that of the B flat, the Gould searched out the music’s bittersweet eloquence (here, surely, the way in which this work’s ostensible backward glances should be understood) as also its more tensile evolution. While the ensemble never lost focus during the slow movement of the E flat Trio, where an unassuming Swedish song is transformed over the course of one of Schubert’s journeys into uncertainty, there could have been a more graphic sense of the ominous towards its outcome.

It is in the two scherzos where Schubert’s antecedents are most evident. The Classical poise and lucidity in that of the B flat Trio is audibly that of Mozart, overtly so in that of its suave trio, though in this instance the Gould was more successful in its teasing out the equivocal asides of the E flat Trio’s third movement – its ‘scherzando’ marking, with all the edginess that implies, yielding a Beethovenian intent that was amply brought out here. In such music, moreover, is Schubert heard at his most provocative and hence at his most contemporary.

The brace of finales brought these contrasted pieces, and their (for the most part) contrasted interpretations, to their head. The outwardly clear-cut rondo of the B flat Trio unfolded with its deft eliding into unexpected keys drawn into a powerful sense of resolve. If ensemble here was notably more secure than in the finale of the E flat Trio, rendering what is formally the most intricate and expressively the most inclusive among all these movements would be a tall order for any group, and there was little doubting the Gould’s insight over its diverse course.

Including the teenage composer’s Sonatensatz as an encore would likely have been gratuitous in context, though it made sense to open the evening with the Notturno written alongside the two mature trios and was most likely a rejected slow movement for the B flat. With its soulful melodic content and energetic central section, it could be a forerunner of the slow movement for the String Quintet – a reminder that nothing went to waste during Schubert’s feverish final months, with that striving quality once again to the fore in what was another fine performance.

For more information on the Gould Piano Trio visit their website

The Gould Trio play Schubert at the Wigmore Hall

The Gould Piano Trio play Schubert at the Wigmore Hall

gould-piano-trio

The Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 15 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05y61y9

on the iPlayer until 15 July

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here:

Meanwhile clips of the Gould Piano Trio playing the music of York Bowen on a recent release for Chandos can be found here

What’s the music?

York Bowen: Rhapsody Trio (1926) (13 minutes)

Schubert: Piano Trio no.1 (1827) (40 minutes)

What about the music?

A nicely balanced hour of chamber music, with one classic of the piano trio repertoire complemented by a very little-known work.

That said, the music of York Bowen has received a lot of exposure of late – too much, some would say! At its best though Bowen’s writing shows that his high regard from composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns was not misplaced. It is chamber music that seems to be the most consistent part of his output. This Rhapsody Trio – written in a single movement format popular with English composers in the early decades of the twentieth century – was premiered at the Savoy Hotel early in 1926 at the annual dinner of the Federation of British Music Industries.

Schubert’s two big works for piano trio are justly celebrated, being two of the best and most substantial pieces for the form. The first was written a year before the composer’s death, for the same trio that gave the first performance of Beethoven’s Archduke piano trio. Incidentally that work is set in the same key, B flat major, leading to the drawing of similarities between the two. The works are similar length, but Schubert imposes his own distinctive style here, writing music that seems on the face of it to be very optimistic – but which can on closer inspection have a few worrisome moments. There is no shortage of tunes, though, and in the slow movement especially Schubert brings his song-writing prowess to bear in some beautifully written duet work for violin and cello above the piano.

Performance verdict

Watching this performance from The Gould Trio it was immediately clear just how much enjoyment they took from the music. The Schubert was full of sleights of humour but was also very detailed, and pianist Benjamin Frith demonstrated an uncanny instinct for knowing when to hold back slightly in a phrase, or when to push on.

The first movement emphasised how gracefully Schubert writes for strings, even in the midst of a lot of bluster, while the song-based second movement lived up to its billing. The ‘Scherzo’ was witty and took time over the longer notes of his contrasting ‘trio’ section, while as the curious last movement wended its way through all sorts of different keys the trio always had a firm hand on the tiller.

Meanwhile the Bowen was given the conviction and passion his music needs, emerging as a really fine piece of music. The end in particular was extremely well done, thoughtful but holding the audience in the palm of its hand.

What should I listen out for?

Bowen

2:23 – the music begins as though emerging from a dream into the morning light. Held notes from the strings and some lazy thoughts from the piano are initially quite unfocused, but gradually the trio find their footing and a bold, louder passage ensues. At 4:34 a fetching melody can be heard on violin and cello in unison.

The music gradually picks up speed, the instruments now a lot more independent and the piano part more demanding. Although the comparisons are often between Bowen and Rachmaninov, I find the appealing unison passage from 9:30 to be like Fauré.

After another passionate section the music seems to be spent, but Bowen brings out a really atmospheric and rather affecting ending from around 14:00 onwards, all three instruments seemingly lost in thought.

Schubert

17:55 – Few chamber works begin with this much positivity! Here the Gould Piano Trio are at pains to stress this music can also be graceful – a lot of trios give the opening of the first movement too much oomph. Here though the tune shines through, and is nicely articulated by pianist Benjamin Frith at 18:49.

19:49 – Schubert’s light and songful second main tune appears on the cello. The trio repeat the first section of this movement at 21:49.

25:35 – Schubert now takes the music further from home, moving through a number of different keys as the main tune gets distorted and more worked up. Eventually this leads back to ‘home’, and the main tune in its original state, at 29:01, from the piano with soft accompaniment. Then at around 31:40 the music pulls back, leading through to an emphatic finish at 32:46.

33:12 – the second movement – marked Andante (at a walking pace) – begins with a cello solo and soft piano accompaniment. The cello is soon joined by the violin with the same melody. The atmosphere is relaxed and nocturnal. However there are shadows that occasionally fall over the music. A good example is at 36:11, where a minor chord introduces a much colder edge. Everything is suddenly less certain, and Schubert alternates between these moods – mostly touching on the positive, and especially so as the movement subsides to a gentle close (from 42:20)

42:55 – the third movement begins. This is a ‘Scherzo’ (normally a jokey kind of movement) and it begins here with an innocent sounding melody. Then Schubert develops a kind of melodic cell that gets passed between the three instruments. The humour – exploited by The Gould Trio – comes mostly in the stop-start nature of the music. The trio section – usually a contrast – begins at 46:14 and is graceful, with long notes in the strings. The scherzo section returns at 48:05.

50:09 – the last movement begins with a sweet tune from the violin, then moves onto a more obviously dance-based second tune (50:49) Schubert then takes the music on a tour of some pretty distant tonal centres, setting his tunes in increasingly playful formats but keeping in the spirit of the dance. Then as the end approaches Schubert keeps pretending to finish before moving off in contrary directions…until he finally does at 59:02, setting off on a quick coda.

Further listening

Two bits of further listening for you this week – if you particularly enjoyed the Schubert, then The Gould Trio have a recording of the second piano trio made at the Wigmore Hall. It can be heard on Spotify below, occupying the last four tracks:

Meanwhile the Gould Piano Trio’s most recent recording, to be reviewed shortly on Arcana, is a fascinating collection of works for piano trio by three British composers – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the recently knighted Sir James MacMillan and Sally Beamish. That disc can be heard on the Spotify link below:

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