Spirited Wigmore Hall Performance of Mendelssohn and Saint-Saens by the Aquinas Trio

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns: The Aquinas Trio [Ruth Rogers (violin), Katherine Jenkinson (cello), Martin Cousin (piano)], Wigmore Hall, London, 6.12.2015. (LJ)

Mendelssohn – Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor

Saint-Saëns – Piano Trio No. 1 in F major

The members of the Aquinas Piano Trio are award-winning musicians both as solo artists and as a trio. The trio formed in 2009 and have recently released two recordings of works by Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns (review). This winter morning concert at the Wigmore Hall offered a tantalising sample from both recordings. Having been enthusiastically reviewed by MusicWeb International, The Strad and Gramophone magazine, the trio had great expectations to fill. Performing Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 2 in C minor and the Trio No. 1 in F major by Saint-Saens, the Aquinas Trio did not disappoint. If their name derives from the Dominican Friar Saint Thomas Aquinas, the following quote from Aquinas’s commentary on the Psalms seems fit for their Sunday morning concert: “a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.”

Violinist Ruth Rogers was the recipient of the Tagore Gold Medal in 2001 (the highest award given by the Royal College of Music). She was taught by Itzhak Rashkovsky and Herman Krebbers. Rogers demonstrated impeccable technique (particularly in the final movement of the Mendelssohn) and played with natural flair and distinction. Her rapport with the audience was charming and winning. Katherine Jenkinson studied with Florence Hooton, Colin Carr and David Strange. A former member of the Allegri String Quartet, she plays on a 1720 Italian cello by Taningar. Towards the end of the first movement of the Mendelssohn Jenkinson restored the even tempered measure that was at risk of running amok after the fiendishly difficult scrambling passages. Featuring on the Oscar-winning film Shine, pianist Martin Cousin’s hands are well known by many. His performances have earned him 1st prize and Gold Medal at the Ettore Pozzoli International Piano Competition (2005) and Royal Overseas League Music Competition (2003), respectively. On this occasion, his quicksilver performance in Mendelssohn’s scherzo won him nods of approval from the entire auditorium.

Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns are united by their belief in music’s majesty over literature. In a letter to Marc-André Souchay on October 15, 1892, Mendelssohn wrote:

“People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me, it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire speech but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.”

Less than a century later, Saint-Saëns, with greater brevity, echoed: “There is nothing more difficult than talking about music.” These beliefs were promulgated by Walter Pater for whom all art aspires to the condition of music. For this concert, words, as usual, are not enough. Cumbersome things that skirt around the issue, whatever words one uses to describe the Aquinas Trio will not be exact enough to capture the tone and atmosphere they created.

Composed in 1845, a year after the Violin Concerto, Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Trio in C minor contains restless rhythmic gestures, beguiling melody (reminiscent of his songs without words), blistering urgency, and a final flourish of blinding light that triumphs over the darkness of the minor key. The pizzicato towards the end of the first movement sounded Mozartean whilst the final movement was reminiscent of baroque themes. Undoubtedly the Aquinas Trio’s performance of the Scherzo, marked molto allegro quasi presto, was the most captivating and impressive moment of the recital. The trio doubled the delights of the audience by playing the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s First Piano Trio for an encore. An inspiration to Brahms, this piece foreshadows the trio’s move towards a complete Brahms cycle in 2017 and expansion into a piano quartet with the viola player Sarah-Jane Bradley.

Dedicated to Alfred Lamarche, Saint-Saëns’s best man at his wedding in 1875, the First Piano Trio was premiered 29 December 1867, by Bosewitz, Telesinsky and Norblin. The earliest significant chamber music by Saint-Saëns, following his Piano Quartet and Quintet in A minor of 1853, this trio was an immediate success as it followed on from the trios of Schumann and Mendelssohn. The F major dance-like theme was given voice by Cousin’s clear definition and good rhythm. The communication between the players enabled the vitality and élan in the frivolous first movement to contrast with the feudal, more serious lament of the second (now in A minor). Mellifluous and beguiling, this movement moved into a warming glow of melodious song before returning to the simple, evocative theme. Playing the cantabile themes of the third movement, Rogers achieved excellent tone and precision. Finally, in the last movement, the continuous dialogue between strings and piano was brought to light with spatiality and lyricism, making this a sublime performance of Saint-Saens’s trio.

Piano trio repertoire is one of the most exquisite forms of musical arrangement. Beginning with Haydn’s 45 trios and including Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ and Dvorak’s ‘Dumky’, compositions for piano trio are amongst the most brilliant and underplayed works of classical music. It is simply wonderful that three musicians as fine as Rogers, Jenkinson and Cousin, have come together to perform and record this superb music. To spread my enthusiasm for piano trios, I recommend the following ensembles: Gryphon Trio, Florestan Trio, Suk Trio, Gould Trio, and Beaux Arts Trio. To this list I must now add the Aquinas Piano Trio.

Lucy Jeffery

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