Benedetti and Trio Play Two Epic Works

15/07/2013

 Beethoven, Tchaikovsky: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), Alexei Grynyuk (piano), Cheltenham Music Festival, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 11.7.2013. (PH)

Beethoven: Archduke Trio
Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio

Nicola Benedetti is one of today’s classical music’s superstars yet, unlike some performers with popular following, she uses her fame wisely to promote the broadest repertoire and is passionately committed to working with young people. It was not that long ago since Nicola was BBC Young Musician of the Year – in 2004! It’s a reflection of her current popularity that this concert sold out on the first day of the Festival booking period.

Meurig Bowen, Director of Cheltenham Music Festival, announced before the concert that Nicola will be Guest Director at next year’s Festival. The artists who played tonight’s programme will be reunited in the opening concert playing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

This concert of piano trios by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky had a common link between the pieces – friendship. The Beethoven was written for his friend Archduke Rudolph of Austria (hence the work’s nickname) and the Tchaikovsky was composed in memory of his friend the pianist Nicolai Rubinstein.

Beethoven’s trio is his last work in this format and was the longest piano trio composed at the time (1811). In Beethoven’s hands the piano trio was now no longer just a piano sonata with violin and cello accompaniment. Symphonic in scale and elevated in feeling the Archduke Trio is one of the peaks of the repertoire and a challenge for any ensemble.

It was a stifling hot evening in the Pittville Pump Room but fortunately there were few problems with intonation. The performance captured the epic scale nicely with well chosen flowing speeds in the outer movements and a rapt concentration in the great slow movement. However balance between the parts was occasionally awry with Alexei Grynyuk threatening to swamp his colleagues. Maybe the interpretation just needs more time to settle down and mature. Nonetheless the greatness of the piece came across as powerfully as ever.

Tchaikovsky’s only piano trio composed in 1882 is even more epic than the Beethoven. Playing for nearly 50 minutes it has just two movements and is often orchestral in sound and conception. The first movement Pezzo Elegiaco is a lament in sonata form whilst the huge second movement is a theme with 11 variations and a funeral march coda recalling the work’s opening theme.

Tchaikovsky’s trio is no longer a rarity in chamber music recitals although it will never be everyday fare. The trio was once unfairly thought of as one of Tchaikovsky’s weaker pieces and past performers would cut some of the variations in order to reduce the piece to a more manageable length. Fortunately those days are over and the trio is performed, as here, complete. This is a passionate and uninhibited work whose main challenge to performers is to hold the disparate elements together and give the piece cohesion. Nicola Benedetti and her trio certainly met the challenges of the work head on. The first movement was especially fine with soaring romantic violin and cello playing.

The variations that form the second movement cover a gamut of styles and emotions including a waltz that has gate crashed from the contemporaneous Serenade for strings, a tinkling imitation of a music box, a Chopinesque Mazurka and a vigorous neo classical fugue. I had some serious reservations about the pianist’s interpretation in some of the variations. Some of his playing was so loud and assertive as to swamp his colleagues and his thunderous chords in the seventh variation brought a touch of unnecessary vulgarity. Checking the score after the performance I found Tchaikovsky’s markings are frequently double forte, but here we had quadruple forte in places! Yet there was also some delicate playing when required and the inspired closing pages brought playing of real feeling and unanimity from all of the musicians.

The concert was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in early August during their 1pm lunchtime concert slot.

Paul Hearn

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