A Compelling Performance of Schubert’s Extraordinary Music

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Hanning Kraggerud (violin), Adrian Brendel (cello), Imogen Cooper (piano), Kings Place, London, 16.5.2015 (GD)

Piano Trio No.1 in B flat, Op.99 (D898)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat, Op. 100 (D 929)


From the robust ‘march-like’ opening theme of the B flat Trio, with its wonderful outflow of lryrical contrasts, Kraggerud, Brendel and Cooper played with excellent unity and rapport, but also with an engaging flexibility so suited to this multifaceted music. Surpisingly Schumann, in a review, described this opening movement as ‘graceful and virginal’. Perhaps he was deploying some kind of esoteric irony here? Or maybe he was referring more specifically to the counterstatement, where he flowing melody is given out ‘pianissimo’ in octaves by the piano, while the violin adds an accompaniment in gentle repeated quavers, the cello interjecting the march rhythm with a subdued ‘pizzicato’? Whatever it was, all these totally Schubertian inventions were given their full expression tonight. Most repeats were observed, and repeats become an important structural mechanism, as in this movement’s exposition repeat, which fully galvanises the dramatic reappearance of the recapitulation with its variant of quiet bars which had concluded the exposition. The recapitulation and coda, with the sudden appearance of a ‘foreign’ key of G flat, only to be transmogrified into the home key for the coda, were played with an artless spontaneity. After the affirmative first movement , Schubert gives us some of the most intimate and conversational music he ever composed in the slow movement, and here there was indeed a wonderful sense of the three players in harmonious conversation, each fully listening to the other. It almost sounds like a cliché, but the initial unfolding of melody, a seeming endless melodic invention, seemed to play itself; again the art of interpretation that conceals interpretation. Every nuance was totally ‘there’ in all its detailed clarity. but nothing was emphasised or underlined. The middle section, with its quietly ominous and agitated C minor, made a most compelling contrast.  The Scherzo, more of a light-hearted ‘joke’, with its lyrical waltz-like inflections, had a suitable and delightful lilt, almost the semblance of a ‘ländler’ style. And the finale with its many metric, rhythmic shifts and turns,  final peroration and presto ‘rush’ conclusion, was brought off with astounding conviction and panache. Each soloist displayed their particular virtuosity, while at the same time,achieving a most satisfying unity and balance. I was particularly impressed with way that Imogen Cooper negotiated the alternating time signatures at the beginning of the development, also the subtle inflections she gave to the dance-like rhythms nearing the developments conclusion; almost recalling the earlier ecossaise piano pieces

Much of the above praise for the B flat Trio applies equally to the E flat Trio. This was wholly apparent in the surging and daring harmonies in the opening Allegro where the second subject arrives in the remote key of B minor. Then the transition into the development section where the tonic B flat motif becomes the flowing tune that sustains most of the development. All these transitions again sounded totally natural and spontaneous, as though the music were playing itself. The second movement Andante con moto with its plaintive C minor cello theme (beautifully phrased by Brendel) has given this movement a recognition and currency well outside the parameters of the concert room. It has been used in dozens of films and some TV dramas. Probably the most effective use in film was in Michael Haneke’s 2001 ‘The Piano Teacher'( with the inimitable Isabelle Huppert in the lead role), a film which explores the interrelations between musical interpretation (mostly Schubert) and sexual obsession – themes Schubert almost certainly would have found fascinating.  As has often been observed this theme has an almost uncanny resemblance with the opening song in Winterreise (‘Gute Nacht) also in C minor,. It is roughly contemporaneous with the great song cycle. A second theme in the major brings temporary relief, but cannot dispel the dark haunting tone of the opening theme. Indeed it could be, and  has been argued that this theme casts its spell over the whole work; It reappears in the course of the finale, a surprise Schubert added to the score in its final version.. He also added the troubled and agitated climax at the centre of the movement – a sense of ‘agitation’ trenchantly articulated tonight with absolutely no concessions to Viennese warmth or charm. As in similar passages of discord and agitation, notably in the second movements of the late G major quartet D, 887, and A major Piano Sonata D, 959, this music anticipates much later 20th century music by Bartok and even Schoenberg! The Scherzo’s light footed canonic imitations and droll harmonies was well contrasted with the heavier peasant-tread of the trio. Schubert’s marking here is actually ‘Scherzando’ with its connotations of ‘playfullness’. The Allegro finale with its recall, in both the development and coda, of the plaintive cello theme from  the slow movement; its kaleidoscopic variety of different tonal constellations; its juxtapositions between major and minor, were all delivered with astounding energy, finesse, and perception. We are spoilt for choice with the plethora of fine recordings of these protean works. I would certainly rate tonight’s renditions amongst the best, and it is hoped that Cooper, Brendel and Kraggerud will record these splendid trios. I will still listen to the classic, and probably unsurpassable, recordings of Cortot, Thibaud and Casals (1926) for the B flat Trio, and Serkin, Adolf and Hermann Busch (1935) for the E flat Trio. But these works really need a full recording. Their dynamic range is quite extraordinary, as heard tonight, and here the more up to date recordings obviously add an important aural dimension. But overall hearing this superb trio of musicians live in this extraordinary music was a most compelling an memorable experience.

Geoff Diggines.




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