United Kingdom Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Gyorgy Kurtag, Louis Spohr, Johann N. Hummel: The Gould Piano Trio [Lucy Gould (violin), Benjamin Frith (piano), Alice Neary (cello)], Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 17.10.2014-19.10.2014 (LJ).
The RWCMD hosted a marvellous weekend of chamber music performed by the prodigiously talented Gould Piano Trio. Benjamin Frith (piano), Alice Neary (cello) and Lucy Gould (violin) are all talented musicians and they performed in a variety of set-ups throughout the three day festival. Entitled Inner Voices, Outer Worlds, this chamber music weekend remembered and celebrated the works of ‘the Robert Schumann circle’. With repertoire ranging from Schumann’s Piano Trios and Mendelssohn’s Octet Op. 20 to lesser well-known works by Clara Schumann (nee Wieck), Louis Spohr and Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister) the Gould Trio painted a detailed picture of Schumann’s own compositions and musical context; as Schumann stated: ‘The painter turns a poem into a painting; the musician sets a picture to music’. With their diverse colours and textures, the trio painted a vivid and vital portrait of the artist at work. With penetrative intensity and genuine curiosity, the they offered Cardiff’s audiences a rare opportunity to piece together the diverse exponents of Schumann’s musical oeuvre and split personality (starkly divided into the introspective Eusebius and impassioned Florestan). Tying the pieces together, readings from Schumann’s poems, journals and letters were given by the drama students of the college, helping to map-out the path between each work and performance. With flawlerss organisations by the RWCMD, music was to be heard almost without intermission from Friday 17th to Sunday 19th of October.
Spaced between the Gould Trio’s performances in the Dora Stoutzker Hall, students from the RWCMD performed an eclectic selection of pieces, from Henri Vieuxtemps to Niels Wilhelm Gade in midday and afternoon recitals. The talents of Olivia Gomez and Lowri Thomas when performing in Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Spohr’s Nonet Op.31 respectively, were particularly praiseworthy. With no lapse in music-making, Schumann’s oft cited quote seemed to ring true when he said: ‘I should like to sing myself to death, like a nightingale.’
From the very first Trio performance (Schumann’s Piano Trio in D minor) to the last (Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor), a sense of Lucy Gould’s assured and attentive leadership could be felt. Gould was confident, though not overbearing, in each performance she gave. Her subtle control over the ensemble (whether duet, trio, quartet, quintet, octet or string symphony) brings to mind Schumann’s advice to performers where he posited: ‘If we were all determined to play the first violin we should never have an ensemble. Therefore, respect every musician in his proper place.’ Gould’s musicianship and performance of the Schumann, Brahms and Dietrich F-A-E Sonata for Violin and Piano was strong and direct. Evoking the ‘Frei aber einsam’ (free but lonely) motto used by the three composers when writing this sonata for their much beloved friend Joseph Joachim, Gould’s performance was both sensitive (particularly in Dietrich’s Allegro, the first movement of this piece) and virtuosic in the notoriously intricate Finale composed by Schumann.
A particular highlight was Alice Neary and Benjamin Frith’s performance of Fanny Mendelssohn’s Fantasia in G minor. A little known piece, due to the common belief that a woman’s musical talents should be an ‘ornament’ for her other qualities (typically more physical in nature) which took precedence, Fanny Mendelssohn’s Fantasia delves into feelings of unending melancholy. Perhaps alluding to the disregard of her intelligent compositions, Fanny commented that: ‘It must be a sign of talent that I do not give up, though I can get nobody to take an interest in my efforts’. Neary and Frith’s revival of this much forgotten composer was a welcomed addition to Saturday’s evening concert which also included a sublime performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet Op. 20. Of noteworthy talent was Marie Bitloch’s enthused performance on cello alongside Neary. Evoking a spring morning in the scrambling runs of the first movement (all played with great accuracy and unity by the ensemble) and with rapid interchanges between each musician (reminiscent of the exchange that takes place in a rapt conversation) all musicians happily received the audience’s warm applause. As the trio’s cellist, Alice Neary was excellent at unveiling the softness in the depths of the cello during the darker passages from Mendelssohn’s Sonata in Bb for cello and piano. On the whole, Neary and Frith both possessed a lightness of touch and playfulness in their performances together.
On Sunday afternoon, Benjamin Frith was joined by Robert Plane on clarinet for a recital of Schumann’s Fantasiestucke Op. 73. Though originally written for clarinet, but more often heard on cello, these three pieces composed in 1849 wholeheartedly expose Schumann as a Romantic who believes that the unrestrained imagination of the composer is the quintessential component of expression. Beginning in the key of A minor, these pieces intertwine Schumann’s poetic sensibilities with his talent for composition. Plane’s performance was well structured and captured the majestic lyricism of Schumann’s work. As an accompanist, Frith’s perfectionist tendencies and professionalism shone through each performance.
Closing the festival with a performance of one of the seminal works of 19th century chamber music (Schumann’s Piano Quintet in Eb, Op. 44), a sense of musical Schumann’s progression, including his persistent and increasingly troubling mental unravelling, was charted by the Gould Trio. Along with David Adams and Louse Williams, who provided beautiful harmonies and support to the core, the trio gave a mesmerising performance of this quintet which, according to Clara, is a splendid piece “full of vigour and freshness”. Having given intelligent and originally nuanced interpretations of Schumann’s repertoire over three days, the Gould Trio deserved the rapturous applause they were given on Sunday evening. If, as Schumann believed, the artist’s calling is ‘to send light into the depths of the human heart’, they certainly succeeded.