United Kingdom Schubert: Gould Piano Trio: Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano) Great Hall, Dartington, 29.11.2013 (PRB)
Piano Trio in B flat major, D 898
Notturno in E flat major, D 897
Piano Trio in E flat major, D 929
During the composer’s lifetime, Schubertiades were generally informal, unadvertised gatherings, held at private homes, where Schubert may even have attended in person. Today’s Schubertiades, however, tend to be concerts or festivals devoted to his music, and, in association with London’s Wigmore Hall, this has spawned a four-event series presented by the Arts at Dartington, and featuring the composer’s late works.
The second concert of the Dartington Schubertiade welcomed the Gould Piano Trio to play the composer’s three major essays for the genre, and each a late work as such. The Gould Piano Trio has been around for over twenty years, and in this quite outstanding recital this certainly showed. But it did not result in any matter-of-fact routine performance of these familiar examples from the repertoire, but instead three magical spell-binding readings where every year since the trio’s formation, over twenty years ago, combined to make such a telling contribution.
Written a year before the composer’s death, the first Piano Trio in B flat begins with a movement of high spirits, but even here, and progressively throughout the rest of the programme, there are increasing subtle hints that all is not well, and that thoughts of his impending demise underpin the whole writing. True, each player proved a consummate artist within the part, making light weight of the bristling technical difficulties, while maintaining the perfect ensemble throughout. The often niggling question of balance between strings and piano was also perfectly addressed, where pianist Benjamin Frith, despite playing with the lid fully open, never once overpowered violinist Lucy Gould or cellist Alice Neary. Of course, the wonderful Dartington acoustic played its part here, too, not only providing an ideal setting for chamber music, but so perfectly combining and diffusing the sound of strings and full-concert-grand Steinway. What the players collectively brought to this simply superb programme was a wonderful insight into the emotional turmoil of the composer at the time, and something which only age and life experience can really engender in performance.
Returning to the opening Allegro, and indeed elsewhere in the performance, the secret is surely to balance the often overly cheerful writing with the ominous undertones which manifest themselves throughout, sometimes by brief excursions into remote keys, so typical of the composer, or the juxtaposition of major and minor tonalities. Give too much prominence to either one and the delicate equilibrium can so easily be compromised. In maintaining this vital equation, the Gould Piano Trio proved themselves consummate masters. The cello opening of the slow movement was gloriously rich in tone, later combining so well with the violin in a moment of great serenity, before the piano began to allude to the emotional uncertainty lurking just beneath the surface. Ensemble tautness was a feature of the Scherzo, always achieved with such minimum of fuss and outward affectation, but confirming the real chemistry between all three performers, while of particular note in the ensuing Finale was the effective contrast of the violin’s spirited little melody with the dramatic piano octaves, the latter despatched with great aplomb by Frith.
The Notturno in E flat was probably intended in the first place for the B flat Piano Trio Schubert was working on at the same time. Irrespective of this, a particular ‘difficulty’ of the work is the far-reaching contrast between the tranquillity of the main theme and the daring, even seemingly violent material in the middle. True, Chopin’s own method in his nocturnes exemplifies this trait, but his twenty-one examples of the form were written between 1827 and 1846, whereas Schubert’s Notturno dates from 1827 to 1828. Once again the vast experience of these three players ensured that this apposition came off so well in performance, as one disparate force was successfully displaced by another.
The Piano Trio in E flat dates from the same period and a feature of the opening Allegro is the significant number of mood changes in one section alone – the development – all of which, coupled with the somewhat looser use of conventional first-movement sonata-form, requires a more erudite and studied approach to the writing, as well as one which successfully addresses the technical issues. Here again, of course, the Gould Piano Trio members were in their element. With already excellent and exhaustive programme notes to hand, it was refreshing that the players did not feel the often annoying need to regurgitate these by way of an unnecessary spoken introduction.
However, a deft touch here was Frith’s mention of the Swedish folk song Se solen sjunker (The Sun Was Sinking), which Schubert used in the slow movement, but not as a theme for a set of variations as such, the composer choosing to accompany it with a mournful march-rhythm, and contrasting it with a more cheerfully-disposed violin melody. The song itself was sung for Schubert by the visiting Swedish tenor, Isaak Albert Berg, later director of the Stockholm Conservatory and teacher of Jenny Lind. Giving the song in its original setting, albeit here beautifully ‘sung’ by cellist, Neary, before the performance of the complete trio, put it perfectly in context, in terms of the composer’s subsequent treatment as the second movement – essentially the musical heart of the whole work, and according so well with the composer’s mood at the time.
The somewhat academic nature of the Scherzo, with its canonic writing, was again finely pointed by the players, as was the nervous reference to part of the opening Allegro. But if the performers’ intellectual ability as well as technical capability had already been severely tested, the Finale demanded even more from them, as they sought to make musical sense of Schubert’s score, with its ‘sotto voce’ interpolations of the earlier Swedish song first in the remote key of B minor, then in the tonic minor, before suddenly veering homeward bound to finish the long and somewhat convoluted movement back in E flat major. Despite the marathon journey they had been on, since the start of the programme in fact, experience and true staying power ensured that there was still more than enough in the tank to produce a superb finish to such an equally superb recital.
Philip R Buttall