From 3 to 5 to 6: Outstanding Chamber Music from the Gould Piano Trio and Friends


Rachmaninov, Mozart, Tchaikovsky:  Gould Piano trio (Lucy Gould, violin;  Benjamin Frith, piano; Alice Neary, cello), David Adams (viola), Rosie Biss (cello), Cerys Jones (violin), Rebecca Jones (viola). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 18.2.2017. (GPu)

Rachmaninov – Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor

Mozart – String Quintet in G minor, K.516

Tchaikovsky – Souvenir de Florence, for string sextet, in D major, Op.70

This was the penultimate concert of a chamber music festival, under the title ‘Twilight of the Tsars’, held at the RWCMD in Cardiff. In a well-designed programme we were taken from Rachmaninov to Mozart and then to Tchaikovsky through some interesting connections (see below), as we moved from a trio to a quintet and, finally, to a sextet.

The Trio élégiaque was written rapidly (in 4 days, by most accounts), when the composer was only 19. It was first performed in 1892, but remained unpublished until 1947. Despite its title, it seems not to be an elegy for any specific individual, so much as an expression of youthful disillusionment and sadness.

From its very opening it was clear that the Gould Piano Trio were at their best. There was a technical and emotional unanimity to all that they did, and they found rather more ‘real’ (rather than affected) emotion in the work than I, at least, have generally heard there. This youthful trio can often sound rather superficial, emotionally speaking, its often demonstrative music somewhat forced and empty, more gesture than substance. The Gould Trio, however, made one believe in the emotions.

Alice Neary articulated Rachmanionov’s lovely melodies for the cello with genuine poetry, rather than mere sentimentality and Lucy Gould did justice to the writing for the violin (which often sounds rather Tchaikovsky-inspired). Benjamin Frith, as he always seems to do, balanced passion and lucidity to something like perfection. The funereal coda which ends the work, struck a note of moving poignancy.

That coda led us neatly into another (much greater) work in G minor, Mozart’s String Quintet, K.516. Given that it was written during last months of Leopold Mozart’s life, it is hardly surprising that it contains much to which one might apply Rachmaninov’s epithet ‘élégiaque’. Yet, for all its (conflicted) sense of personal loss the music, as one would expect from Mozart, transcends the merely personal. This is not ‘merely’ about Mozart, but also about the way in which any individual suffers the blows of fate.

For this great quintet, Lucy Gould was joined on stage by fellow violinist Cerys Jones, cellist Rosie Biss (principal cello of the WNO), and the violas of David Adams (Leader of the orchestra of WNO) and Rebecca Jones. From the work’s heart-ravishing opening to the subtly shadowed consolation at its close, this performance had a sense of total involvement and of a consistent emotional trajectory. Mozart’s realisation here seems to be of the ultimate inseparability of apparently ‘opposite’ emotions. The music has, as a result (and had in most of this performance), a kind of joyous gravity, in which the graver emotions are articulated and shaped so perfectly that even ‘pain’ becomes a thing of beauty and therefore, to paraphrase Keats, a thing of joy.

Throughout this (relatively ad hoc) quintet sustained the insistent nervous tension which permeates Mozart’s writing in K.516. There was much to admire – and remember – in this performance, not least in the adagio opening of the last movement, as Lucy Gould gave powerful weight to a series of passionate statements over a repetitive accompaniment by the second violin and the violas, while the cello shaped a largely independent (yet utterly appropriate) line of its own. A great moment!

Given Tchaikovsky’s well-known admiration of Mozart (“Mozart is the highest, the culminating point that beauty has attained in the sphere of music”), it was only right that after the interval we should hear one of Tchaikovsky’s most interesting compositions for chamber ensemble: his String Sextet in D minor, Souvenir de Florence, Op.70. The title it bears is potentially more than a little misleading, since in three of its four movements the music is decidedly Russian rather than Italianate. A private performance of the work was given at the end of 1890, in the light of which the composer revised the third and fourth movements The revised work was premiered late in 1892.

The performers for this last item in the programme were as for the Mozart quintet, save for the addition of Alice Neary as the second cellist (and the fact that while David Adams had played first viola in the Mozart and Rebecca Jones the second, now they exchanged roles).

The first movement’s two themes, the first somewhat turbulent, the second warmly lyrical, are both pushed aside in the powerful coda, dense with intricate cross rhythms, which the players relished and played incisively. In the second movement (Adagio cantabile con moto) the duet for violin and cello, apparently sketched in Florence, was beautiful in its air of lamentation which, yet, somehow always kept alive the memory of Italian sunshine. It is tempting, indeed, to think of the whole work as a kind of implicit dialogue between the Slavic temperament and the warmth of Italy.

The last two movements are soaked in the language and rhythms of Russian folk music. The opening of the third movement (Allegretto moderato) worked particularly well in this performance, with its simultaneous use of bowed and pizzicato strings. However, it was in the last movement (Allegro con brio e vivace) that the six musicians produced something thoroughly memorable. The movement was taken very fast indeed, and with such repeated acceleration, that at times it seemed inevitable that the whole thing would come off the rails at some point. Exhilaratingly, it never did – though at the end the faces and the body language of the performers seemed to exude relief as well as excited satisfaction! It made for a thrilling conclusion to a rewarding and varied concert.

Glyn Pursglove

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