Discerning and Penetrating Performances from Isabelle Faust and Friends

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sciarrino, Schumann & Schubert: Isabelle Faust (violin), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Alexander Melnikov (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 22.12.2015. (CS)

Salvatore Sciarrino: Piano Trio No.2

Schumann: Piano Trio No.3 in G minor Op.110

Schubert: Piano Trio No.1 in Bb D.898

Christmas may almost be upon us, but there was no sense of a festive ‘winding down’ during this concert at the Wigmore Hall in which violinist Isabelle Faust, her regular accompanist, Alexander Melnikov, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras presented a programme of trio sonatas which made considerable demands upon performers and listeners alike.  And perhaps that’s how it always is, or should be, when the best chamber music is played by three instrumentalists who are outstanding musicians in their own right and who communicate collectively with such singularity of vision and intent.

The music of the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (b.1947) is not well-known in this country.  Sciarrino’s Piano Trio No.2, written in 1987, has been described by the composer as ‘dry and defiant’, ‘something marvellous and altogether mechanical’.  The work explores the very notion of ‘creativity’; Sciarrino has alluded to the original Three Muses, for whom he proposes modern equivalents – sensitivity, careful intelligence and an insatiable thirst – and these qualities certainly seem to be driving energies in this immensely challenging and relentlessly probing work.

Perhaps it is just that British astronaut, Tim Peake, newly arrived at the International Space Station, has been a familiar face in news reports of late, but during the opening bars of the Trio I found myself wondering whether, if space had its own ‘music’, this is what it would sound like?  Stratospherically high string tones and harmonics – so high that there scarcely seemed room for the players’ bows between their precariously balanced fingertips, placed well beyond the fingerboard, and the bridge! – pierced the air, like eerie whistling from another world.  I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to experience this surreal stream as pure sound or pitched tones; perhaps both.

The Trio pits the strings against the piano, creating an edgy tension, suggestive of suspicion and distrust, which at times spills out into aggression and fury.  As the strings convey continuity, their colours subtly evolving through myriad juxtapositions and forms, the keyboard periodically but assertively disrupts with a stormy clamour, monumental and improvisatory, creating an almost terrifying instability and unpredictability.  Yet, Melnikov’s interventions, at times more delicate, had a strange, florid beauty.  And, the strings were indeed ‘defiant’, not cowed by the intrusive ferocity.  Faust, in particular, brought ever greater penetration and power to her tone, and, in any case, the subtle nuances of the strings’ duet of trills, glissandi and harmonics formed their own quiet, spectral, defence.

In the final bars there was release, perhaps synthesis, if not resolution.  The piano’s tumbling glissandi exploded the strings’ shifting, shivering gossamer, and there was a sense of relaxing expansion – of register, rhythm and resonance.  Sciarrino’s Second Piano Trio is ambitious in its expressive intent and in its technical demands, and the instrumentalists’ discipline and virtuosity were astonishing and sustained.

It was quite a shift from this austerity and severity to the Romantic works which followed, but the premise of virtuosity and inspiration which informs Sciarrino’s work also underpins Romantic expression, even if it takes a rather different outer form.  And during the autumn of 1851 Robert Schumann was certainly ‘inspired’: the Third Piano Trio belongs to a group of chamber works composed in rapid succession which include the First and Second Violin Sonatas. 

Faust’s recording of these sonatas (for CPO in 2000) confirmed, in the words of the BBC Music Magazine reviewer, that she is a ‘violinist who speaks Schumann from the very soul’.  After this performance, I would concur.  This is deeply impassioned music, but she and her musical partners found the fervency within the music, rather than emphasising its external luxuriance and ampleness.   Melnikov was a sensitive accompanist in the first movement (Bewegt, doch nicht zu rasch) allowing the intertwining violin and cello melodies to speak freely, without force, and making the intricate counterpoint between the two instruments cleanly audible.  This was particularly helpful at the climax of the development section, where the cello’s unexpected pizzicato motif initiated a complex passage of imitative dialogue, in which the tiny motifs were transferred between all three instrumentalists with mercurial sleight of hand.  In phrases where the cello line soared, Queyras displayed a rich, sweet tone, but he reined in the sensuousness to match Faust’s poised intensity.  Oddly for music so heartfelt, at times there was an almost introspective quality, as when the main theme re-emerged almost imperceptibly from the low sustained piano tremolo which concludes the development.

The slow movement (Ziemlich langsam) had breadth and warmth, though, but darkness too; in the opening duet for the violin and cello, the rising sixth with which the melody begins suggested melancholic yearning.  The central section of the movement was dramatic and agitated, and Melnikov’s accented incursions, slightly steely in tone, deepened the sense of unrest, before the calm of the opening was restored.  The Scherzo (Rasch) was ardent but never ‘wild’.  The syncopations of the first trio were elegantly phrased, and the switch to the major tonality for the second was gratifying, the rhythmic contrasts between dotted motifs and smooth triplets engaging.  If the final movement (Kräftig, mit Humor) seems less inventive and a somewhat patchwork, as themes from earlier movements are reprised in an apparent attempt by Schumann to create unity, the players’ efforts to find every inference conveyed by the interweaving voices sustained our attention, and the conclusion was high-spirited.

This was a passionate but always poised performance, and a good opportunity to hear a chamber work which has almost disappeared from the repertoire.  (Earlier this year, the three players released a recording of the Third Trio, paired with the composer’s Violin Concerto, the first disc in a Harmonia Mundi series in which the soloists in the violin, cello and piano concertos will come together for one of Schumann’s piano trios.  Queryras’ account of the Cello Concerto, coupled with the Second Piano Trio, was released in July.)

Schubert’s gargantuan Piano Trio No.1 in B flat was completed in the final year of the composer’s too short life.  Robert Schumann remarked, ‘One glance at Schubert’s Trio and the troubles of our human existence disappear and all the world is fresh and bright again’.  I’m not sure if ‘carefree’ is the adjective I would use to describe this performance, but it was invigorating.  And what was impressive was the way that such a monumental work was made, at times, to seem intimate and personal.

Again, the careful, immensely detailed preparation and thought evident in the precision which characterised the players’ individual and collection expression was noteworthy and demanded sustained attention.  This is a work I know well, but I repeatedly heard things anew or was challenged to reassess and reconsider.  For example, the opening phrase of the Allegro moderato climbed brightly in buoyant triplets; but when this phrase was immediately repeated, a tone higher, Faust began with an up bow, which took me aback but which I saw had the effect of both creating broader phrase structures and accenting the first note of the second bar of the phrase – the point of arrival, melodically and harmonically.  However, despite the obvious musical intelligence at work, the playing was never cerebral at the expense of expressive directness.  The ‘Classical’ was emphasised, rather than the ‘Romantic’ – although in some of the grander climaxes I sensed an almost Brahmsian rhythmic urgency and tension.  Some might find Melnikov’s crisp staccato too dry, but he spot-lit every detail and brought air and light to the underpinning of Schubert’s massive structures. 

In the lullaby-like theme of the Andante moderato Queyras’s light, honeyed tone was once again captivating, the gentle accents adding subtle longing to the graceful melody.  The Scherzo was playful but the folk dance was elegant rather than rugged, and in the Trio violin and cello exchanged the melody in a refined manner above Melnikov’s quiet staccato chords.  After the extended development of the final Rondo’s material, the simple rising cadential scale, repeated until it dissolved into air in the concluding bars, was enchanting.  As with the opening Trio by Sciarrino, we were left contemplating sound and silence.

Claire Seymour

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