Fournier Trio Give Seminal Performance at Dartington Summer School

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Haydn, Wood, Bridge, Shostakovich Fournier Trio [Sulki Yu (violin), Pei-Sian Ng (cello), Chiao-Ying Chang (piano)], Great Hall, Dartington, 22.8.2015 (PRB)

Fournier Trio Photo Credit Kaupo Kikkas
                           Fournier Trio Photo Credit Kaupo Kikkas

Joseph Haydn: Piano Trio No 39 in G major, Hob. 25, ‘Gypsy’
Hugh Wood: Piano Trio, Op 24
Frank Bridge: Miniatures for Piano Trio, Nos 4, 5, 6
Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op 67

Dartington International Summer School, now in its sixty-fifth year, has been bringing a wealth of talent in all art-forms to the glorious surroundings of the Dartington Hall Estate, to take part in teaching the hundreds of students it receives during the now four-week run, traditionally straddling the end of July and closing at the end of August. Theoretically this allows all those of whatever age, interest, level of attainment and origin, to take part in the many varied classes and ensembles which run each week, generally on a themed basis, and perhaps to enjoy some balmy Devon summer weather – though this can always prove rather elusive.

This year’s Artistic Director is pianist Joanna MacGregor, Head of Piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music, who said: “By day, every corner of the estate hums with activity and learning;  by night the medieval Great Hall hosts a packed series of concerts, from the Renaissance and Baroque, to romantic opera, cutting-edge jazz, contemporary, choral, and chamber music.”

In fact the concert programme covers virtually the whole musical gamut, and is becoming a vital part of the whole summer-school experience, by providing four weeks of public concerts given by top artists teaching on the course. Not only does this come at a time when most local organisations are taking a summer break, but also fills a much-needed gap in the provision of quality classical music events which the large conurbations within a thirty mile radius rarely seem able to provide now

This recital by the Fournier Trio, in fact, marks the start of the final week of this year’s summer school, and is born out of an Advanced Composition Course under director and composer Hugh Wood, and which will bring the Fourniers back at the end of this week to work with, and perform some of the chamber music compositions which students will hopefully have produced during the week. Briefly welcoming the audience, MacGregor was delighted to announce that funding should ensure that the four-week pattern continues for a good time to come, as well as the award of an Arts Council Grant, which will allow for the provision of additional events throughout the year, and not just under the umbrella of the summer school.

It can be so rewarding to hear ensembles you’ve reviewed before, when they return as fully-fledged players, and without doubt among the leaders in their field.  Technique and ensemble skills were always first-rate, but the immense sense now of greater maturity the Fournier Trio brought to their art made this such a seminal performance.

Haydn’s Gypsy Rondo Trio proved the ideal aperitif, with the sense of fun apparent throughout. Supremely together from the very first note, this performance took no time at all to settle, with piano and violin as perfectly as one, from the start of the opening Andante, to the rapid beginning of the ‘presto’ Rondo finale. The expressive slow movement’s instruction for the strings to ‘sing’ (cantabile), couldn’t have found two more sensitive exponents than violinist Sulki Yu and Pei-Sian Ng (cello), while the scintillating finale captured the often gruff folk-like nature of the writing to utter perfection, as rapid changes of mood, tonality, writing-style were all despatched with great panache.

The players followed this with Composer in Residence Hugh Wood’s Piano Trio (1984). The Fourniers are well known for championing contemporary works alongside more mainstream repertoire, and they really do have that most enviable of qualities – to appear equally at home in Haydn trios as they do in those by Gary Carpenter, Timothy Salter and Daniel Kidane. Their performance of Wood’s aurally-challenging Trio was absolutely stupendous, and while all three players’ contribution was priceless, s special mention must be made of pianist Chiao-Ying Chang’s performance, so powerful, yet equally so sensitive and sonically aware of what’s going on around her. The musicality, dedication and application of these three outstanding performers here merit only the highest words of praise and admiration.

In terms of any art-form, we know what we like, and like what we know, but that is not to say that we remain blinkered and thus impervious to new ideas as we get older. But suddenly placed in an art-gallery and confronted with something we don’t like, or understand, the solution’s simple – just move on. However this isn’t quite as viable when it’s in a concert hall, even if one suspects that there were a few early interval drink orders for the interval.

Keeping costs down is crucial for any organising body, but it would have been possibly more helpful if the three sides of A4 provided (not charged-for, but with a donation suggested) gave information on the works, rather than the performers. Usually there is both, but always with a greater emphasis on programme content, than lengthy artists’ biographies. In the case of Wood’s Trio, for example, some succinct information on his formal plan, use of serialism, motifs, textures, cyclic forms, and much more could have made it an easier experience. True the tempo indications of each work were shown, but this isn’t overly as helpful.

On quite a sultry and airless evening, it was sheer bliss to resume the second half and a sense of order and beauty once more with Frank Bridge’s Miniatures for Piano Trio, Nos 4, 5, 6. No other English composer of the first half of the twentieth century in fact reveals such a stylistic journey in his music. His early works follow in the late-Romantic tradition, but after WW1 his music became intense and chromatic with the result that, by his Second Quartet he was rubbing shoulders with the Second Viennese School. Yet while he was finding new paths as a composer, he began to find little favour with public or critics, despite the advocacy of his student Benjamin Britten. The Miniatures (of which there were nine in all), however, date from 1915, and so are eminently lyrical, charming and engaging, and which the Fourniers gave with just enough sense of ‘salon’ style as to make them into such enchanting little confections.

 Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 in E minor proved absolutely ideal with which to finish this breath-taking recital.  Taking advantage of the Great Hall’s superb acoustic and ambiance, there were such whispered pianissimos at times, contrasted with stark powerful writing in octaves. Again it’s not a work without its fair share of dissonance and acerbity, but the only difference being that, even without some form of programme note to hand, there is such a clear sense of purpose and direction – and it essentially has something to say – surely the yardstick for any piece of music, whether by Machaut, Mozart, Bach, or Boulez.

The Fourniers weren’t allowed to leave until they had obliged with an encore – a tear-jerking performance of Ástor Piazzolla’s hauntingly-beautiful Oblivion, from the soundtrack of Marco Bellocchio’s 1984 film Enrico IV.

And when you consider that the whole recital was given without their regular cellist, something which Sulki Yu shared with the audience only late in the second half, it made the performance seem even more remarkable. In fact when she announced this to the audience, informing them that in fact it was Pei-Jee’s twin cello-playing brother, Pei-Sian deputising on the night, this clearly sent a shockwave through the auditorium, given the quite astonishing manner in which he had fitted in so imperceptibly.

This was, then, a truly exceptional performance by surely one of the very best piano trios around today.

Philip R Buttall

Leave a Comment