The Sitkovetsky Trio: Technically Assured but Missing a Frisson of Communication

29/12/2016

Turina, Ravel, Schubert, Schumann: Sitkovetsky Trio (Alexander Sitkovetsky [violin], Danjulo Ishizaka [cello], Wu Qian [piano]), Wigmore Hall, London, 27.12.2016 (CS)

Turina – Piano Trio No.2 in B minor Op.76
Ravel – Piano Trio in A minor
Schubert – Notturno in E flat major D897
Schumann – Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.63

The music which has been composed for piano trio offers riches which emulate in quality, if not quantity, the string quartet repertoire. Yet, in the past the only well-known, regular ensemble performing and recording this repertoire was the Beaux Arts Trio. Today we are fortunate that numerous Piano Trios – the Florestan, the Busch, the Gould, the Aquinas, the Vienna, the Hamlet, the Van Baerle to name but a few among those whose performances we are privileged to enjoy – are offering fresh interpretations of the works previously performed and recorded by the Beaux Arts, and commissioning new works for the form.

The Sitkovetsky Trio, formed in 2007, is another of the dynamic ensembles currently exploring the historic and contemporary repertoire, though only two of the group’s three instrumentalists – Russian violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and Chinese pianist Wu Qian, who met as students at the Menuhin School – are regular collaborators. The Sitkovetsky’s website does not list a ‘permanent’ cellist: originally cellist Leonard Elschenbroich was a frequent musical partner; more recently they have performed with Richard Harwood; on this occasion, the German-Japanese cellist, Danjulo Ishizaka, contributed a striking blend of intense concentration and expressive musicianship to the Trio’s performance of familiar and unknown works from the twentieth and nineteenth centuries.

The piano trio form poses innate problems for its performers. Given that the chamber genre values equality between the players, one might foresee insoluble balance problems: how can two string players compete with an instrument designed to fill the largest concert halls either alone or when presiding over a large symphony orchestra? That balance was not a problem on this occasion was principally a result of the sensitivity, intelligence and technical skill of pianist Wu Qian. Although the lid of the Wigmore’s Steinway was raised, the piano never once forced Sitkovetsky or Ishizaka to push or strain their tone. However virtuosic the demands upon Qian, she skipped lightly around the keyboard: complex rhythms, intricate figurations, brilliant flourishes – all were deftly executed with precision and polish. It’s no surprise to learn that the Chinese pianist was selected as classical music’s ‘bright young star’ for 2007 by the Independent. In this recital, Qian was a binding force, elucidating the formal structures of the works performed; uniting their dynamic, competing arguments; and blending Sitkovetsky’s dramatic intensity with Ishizaka’s penetrating lyricism.

When one thinks of the Spanish repertoire, chamber music does not immediately spring to mind. However, Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) balanced a commitment, shared by his contemporary Manuel de Falla, to Spanish nationalism – the legacy of Albéniz and Granados – alongside an interest in western formal traditions. Turina’s chamber compositions are many and diverse: piano trios, string quartets (La Oración del Torero – The Bullfighter’s Prayer – was made famous by Heifetz’s arrangement for violin and piano), a piano quartet, a quintet, and a sextet, violin sonatas, as well as compositions for varied instrumental groups including a work for soprano and piano quintet.

The second of Turina’s piano trios was published in 1933 and premiered by the Nederland Trio that year. The Trio begins with an introductory Lento which the Sitkovetsky Trio made the lightest of breaths, leading into the Brahmsian warmth of the Allegro molto moderato. Sitkovetsky plays with power and focus, and his high E-string lines – here, and in the ensuing Molto vivace movement – were striking and commanding. But the underlying Spanish ‘sway’ remained evident in the fluidity of the melodious outpourings. Ishizaka’s expansive cello melody was notable for its singing richness. The piano’s rhetorical gestures made their mark, then receded diplomatically, ensuring that Turina’s evocative impressionistic textures remained lucid.

I’d have liked a stronger Spanish flavour, though: a little more ostentation via the cello’s pizzicato interjections, greater sensuous of sonority at times, a freer lilt for the asymmetrical rhythms and frequent tempo changes. In the finale, Lento-Andante mosso-Allegretto, the majesty of the strings’ sustained melody was juxtaposed with the piano’s flamboyance but the Trio did not quite manage fully to integrate European classical formal and harmonic features with Spanish folk elements – but perhaps this is a flaw in the work itself rather than in the Sitkovetsky’s interpretation and rendition.

Ravel’s well-known A minor Trio produced a more successful assimilation of classicism and impressionism. The cleanness and delicacy of the piano’s inventive passagework in the Modéré was notable, while Ishizaka drew rich hues from his C-string, crafting a deep, melodious line. Indeed, while textures were unfailingly translucent there was no neglecting the sweet tunefulness of Ravel’s opening movement. The players revealed Ravel’s integration of melody, rhythm and timbre, nowhere more so than in the closing episode of the movement as the violin’s finely shaped melody was joined by the cello – the tone further enriched above the piano’s dark, sonorous bass – before the strings’ harmonics diminished to niente about the piano’s low rhythmic fragments.

The emphasis was on dynamism, though, rather than shimmering subtleties; and this approach carried into Pantoum; Assez vif where all three players proved themselves untroubled by Ravel’s rhythmical and technical challenges. The piano’s pointed staccatos were punctuated by flashes of light – vibrant pizzicato chords, left-hand pizzicatos amid rapid spiccato passages – which were often quite dry and percussive. By contrast, the Passacaille – a highlight of the evening – was profound and intense. The tempo was just right – unhurried yet never sluggish – and Qian’s first statement of the theme, in the dark regions of the piano’s bass register, was beautifully gentle and even. Subsequent entries of the violin, then cello, had a naturalness that belied the music’s uneasy reflectiveness, though the latter was brought to the fore by the intensity of Sitkovetsky’s G-string forays. The 5/4 Animé with which the work concludes might have had even greater urgency and impetuosity but there was a welcome lightness despite the extravagant virtuosity, and in the closing passages the players summoned impressive power and punch.

After the interval, we heard Schubert’s E flat major Notturno D897, a work which was probably originally designed to form the slow movement of the composer’s B flat Piano Trio. The tempo is slow, but drama was generated by juxtaposition: the penetrating cello pizzicatos against the gentle lyricism of the main theme; the piano’s running triplet semiquavers against the sharply dotted second theme in the surprising key of E major. Harmonic and structural transitions were neatly effected. Dynamics were finely graded and there were some magical diminuendos and pianissimos. The Sitkovetsky emphasised the spaciousness and scale of the movement – which would not be unworthy of the great C major String Quintet.

Schumann’s first piano trio, written during a two-week burst of inspiration in the summer of 1847 – and possibly inspired by Mendelssohn’s piano trio in the same key – was the final work in the programme. The first movement – Mit Energie und Leidenschaft – surged with apt restlessness, but without undue distortion of line or unnecessary idiosyncrasy. Again, Qian seemed to guide the articulation of the musical arguments: the variety of colours she painted, and the independent freedom and precision of the two hands, was noteworthy. Schumann and his wife Clara had made an intense study of contrapuntal technique and form in 1845 and the results are evident in this work: the Sitkovetsky Trio expertly crafted the exchanges and interplay between the three voices, and relished the rhetorical flair of the closing episodes. Tense, skipping up-bows brought further agitation to the tightly dotted theme of the following scherzo, though the deliberate scalic theme of the Trio attempted to reign in any impending turbulence. In the slow movement, Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung, the strings indulged – quite rightly! – the music’s generous Romantic expressivity and expansiveness, but emphasised the tenderness of Schumann’s lyricism rather than its impassioned heights. The finale, Mit Feuer, was stormier, racing onwards through Schumann’s incessant invention and flux; again, given the density of the material and the complexity of the polyphonic conversational textures, Qian was a controlled and judicious presence. The final, powerful statements were, if not joyful, undoubtedly affirmative.

Technically this was an assured recital, with Qian’s pianism and instinctive appreciation of the chamber genre particular impressive. The contrasting moods and idioms were convincingly mastered, and the Wigmore Hall audience were unwaveringly appreciative. I felt, though, that some frisson – hard to define – was absent: an air of freedom or risk, perhaps; or maybe I longed for a more direct communication between the players and the Hall. Ishizaka was intently focused on his score throughout, undoubtedly in deep engagement with his fellow musicians, but less obviously aware of, and speaking to, the audience – though, at the close of the recital, his joy in the music-making was patently evident.

We were given an – unnecessary, but charming – encore. (This is becoming a bit of a bugbear of mine; finely crafted programmes need no afterword.) In 2015, the Sitkovetsky Trio released a recording of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trios on the Bis label, and to conclude they performed the slow movement from Mendelssohn’s own D minor trio – a tad too fast for my liking, but with plenty of long-breathed lyricism and fine violin tone.

Claire Seymour

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