Schubert Trio Lifts the Spirits in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Lesley Hadfield Trio: Lesley Hadfield (violin), Alistair Beatson (piano), Guy Johnston (cello), Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff, 30.3.2010. (GPu)

Schubert, Piano Trio in B flat major, D898

This review runs the risk of sounding like one of those ‘before-and-after’ medical adverts. I came from my office direct to this lunchtime concert, with my mind full of problems, actual and impending, and in the midst of getting over a family bereavement. But by the time I left my state of mind was considerably improved; this was one of those concerts of which one genuinely say that it lifted the spirits. Such an effect has to be attributed both to the nature and quality of Schubert’s remarkable trio and to the performance it got.

A good conservatoire isn’t only an educational establishment; it also makes a real contribution to the life of its area. The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama certainly does that through its extensive programme of performances (dramatic as well as musical, see Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama by students, staff and distinguished visitors. I travel from Swansea for events at the College and there are other regular members of the audiences there who come from Newport and Bristol, as well as from Cardiff and its immediate environs. The lunchtime programmes are brief enough to tempt those working nearby who can’t spare too long and plenty good enough to tempt listeners to make a special trip when they can.

On this occasion the trio included one member, Lesley Hatfield, who teaches at the College, alongside her duties as leader of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. She is, of course, a well-established chamber musician who has played and recorded with, amongst others, the Gaudier and Nash Ensembles. On this occasion she was joined by pianist Alasdair Beatson, whose reputation is growing rapidly through both his solo recordings and his concert performances in a variety of ensembles and contexts (he was nominated a ‘Rising Star’ in the BBC Music Magazine not so long ago) and the cellist Guy Johnston, former BBC Young Musician of the Year, founding member of the Aronowitz ensemble, Professor of Cello at the Royal Academy of Music, and a musician whose chamber music experience includes work with the Belcea and Endellion Quartets as well as with Lawrence Power, Janine Janssen and others. Hatfield, Beatson and Johnston first played together at the International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove (in Cornwall) back in 2010. Both temperamentally and technically they clearly work together very well.

From the initial joyous triplets of the opening allegro moderato’s first theme one could relax confident in the knowledge that this was going to be a performance that did something like full justice to this rich music; that confidence was reconfirmed by the way in which the second, more obviously lyrical theme, was invested simultaneously with elegance and gravity. The unusual length of the exposition of both themes, and the subtlety with which the two themes are combined in the (also lengthy) development section makes this a work which speaks of abundance, an affirmation of joy which seems (perhaps only with hindsight, given our knowledge that Schubert would die less than twelve months after he wrote it) a kind of affirmation of vitality in the face of mutability. Hatfield and colleagues produced playing of delightfully translucent beauty in the opening of the ensuing andante, and there was constant delight to be had in following the way in which Schubert conducts this three way conversation, the way in which each instrument shifts to and from background and foreground.

The quality of Alasdair Beatson’s listening was as impressive as his playing – when a modern grand is used in this music the pianist’s careful attention to balance is vital. There was an appropriately Puckish quality to the scherzo, and the waltz-like quality of the trio was perfectly articulated. The contrapuntal writing of the development section of the closing rondo was beautifully presented, with an unforced, unacademic quality that breathed naturalness. As in so much of this piece, the spirit of dance was never far away. Ezra Pound once declared that “music rots when it gets too far from the dance”. There was nothing ‘rotten’ about this very dancing music; by its close one felt that one had heard the dance of the countryside, the dance of the ballroom and the dance of the Gods alike.

Back home, trying to remember what Schumann had said about this piano trio, failing to and having to look it up, I found that he had written “One glance at it and the troubles of our human existence disappear and the whole world is fresh and bright again”. Quite!

Glyn Pursglove