Assured Performances by the Aquinas Piano Trio

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Thomas Hyde, Mendelssohn, Brahms: Aquinas Piano Trio (Ruth Rogers [violin], Katherine Jenkinson [cello], Martin Cousin [piano]), Kings Place, London, 13.3.2016 (CS)

Thomas Hyde: Piano Trio: after Picasso (world première)
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.49
Brahms: Piano Trio No.1 in B Op.8

The three members of the Aquinas Piano Trio are established solo artists in their own right, and so the compelling unity of interpretation and articulation that they achieved in this very assured performance at King’s Place was striking.

British composer Thomas Hyde has a long association with the Trio: in 2001 he composed a suite for unaccompanied cello which was dedicated to, and subsequently recorded by, Jenkinson; and, in 2005, the Trio’s performance of Hyde’s Three Dancers formed part of a disc of the composer’s chamber music (Autumnal).   Three Dancers, which was inspired by Picasso’s ‘La Danse’ (1925) has now been supplemented by two further movements, ‘Hidden Portrait’ and ‘Mechanical Galliard’, which represent further responses to two of the painter’s works – ‘Musical Instruments on a Table’ (1924) and ‘Las Meninas’ (1957) respectively.  The resulting Piano Trio: after Picasso Op.11 was given a fine, committed premiere by the Aquinas Trio.

‘Three Dancers’ has a fragmented structure – Hyde has explained that ‘the form is deliberately ‘artificial’ with odd pauses and hiatuses’ – in which rocking piano figures accompany the strings’ impressionistic glissandi and motivic arabesques.  The idiom is concentrated and demonstrates the composer’s skilful and subtle exploitation of texture and colour.  The harmonic language is post-Britten-esque, essentially tonal but with effective use of expressive dissonance.  The painter’s representation of the dancing figures is embodied in the tango-like fragments which accrue then fade.  Jenkinson had the lion’s share of the most well-defined melodic lines and she played them with refinement amid the generally capricious material.

‘Hidden Portrait’ is more meditative and the players brought out the contrasts between the probing, intense explorations and the more reticent reflections which float ethereally.  Again, the inventive textures were articulated with grace and focus: through Cousins’ gently rippling chords, the low cello sounded firm foundations, while Rogers’ glissandi were beautiful coloristic wisps.  The performers conveyed a ‘roving’ quality which suggested a ‘hidden’ mystery – the painting has been thought to be a secret depiction of Marie-Thérèse Walter who later became Picasso’s lover – and in the reflective final episodes Jenkinson’s melodies were again sensitively phrased.

The rhythmic asymmetries and contrapuntal energy of the final movement – Hyde acknowledges the influence of Stravinsky – were invigorating and bright-toned.  The piano’s neo-baroque dance gestures were punctuated by arresting string pizzicatos and counter-motifs.  The ensemble was excellent; the score is highly detailed and Hyde, who was present, must have been delighted by this engaging performance in which the three players conveyed the music’s subtle nuances with precision and elegance.

If you tend towards the Victorians’ view of Felix Mendelssohn as somewhat superficial, saccharine and effeminate, then the Aquinas’ passionate performance of the composer’s First Piano Trio in D minor would have shattered such preconceptions.  The players generated sustained excitement, and once again their consistent attention to detail communicated the depth and breadth of the musical material.  The Trio’s recording of Mendelssohn’s piano trios was Strad’s ‘Choice of the Month’ in May 2015 and the ‘symphonic sweep and an insatiable forward momentum’ that the Strad reviewer noted was in noteworthy evidence here.

In fact, I wondered if there was not a tad too much ‘forward momentum’ at times.  The tempi of both the Andante con molto tranquillo and the ensuing Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace seemed overly hasty to this listener.  The Andante is effectively a ‘song without words’; the melodies should pour forth fluently and easily, with spaciousness and freedom, avoiding stodgy wallowing but allowing the detail present in the inner voices room to speak without tautness or hurriedness.  All three performers crafted eloquent phrases, injecting judicious tension into the cantabile line; the dialogues and transferences between the instruments established persuasive arguments.  Yet, with the recapitulation and the commencement of the semiquaver counter-melody in the violin, things felt a little too fraught and busy.  That said, Rogers’ E-string theme soared serenely, and the strings’ oscillations re-established a mood of calm at the close.  The tempo of the Scherzo was more problematic – madcap rather than mercurial – though it did showcase some impressive technique, not least from Cousin who whizzed with blithe breeziness through the precipitous passagework.  But the movement’s ‘magical’ merriness was diminished by the frantic nature of the faerie sprite’s dance; consequently, the insouciant string pizzicatos of the final cadence seemed out of place after the breathless racing which preceded them.  The final movement re-established a symphonic stature, however, and the Aquinas sustained excitement and tension to the very last bar.

The Aquinas’ interpretation of Brahms’s Trio in B balanced inner tension and surface lyricism.  If the Allegro con brio began in fairly leisurely style, there was a pulsing alertness and latent agitation present which hinted at the work’s anxieties and profundity, even as Jenkinson’s theme rang out with beautiful tranquillity.  This is a massive movement, and the players entered its brooding drama and emotional excesses with controlled passion.  Brahms’s textures are thick and the magisterial power of the Romantic piano idiom is exploited by the composer, but the string lines were always audible and articulated with bite and clarity, while Cousin exhibited a supremely light touch in the development section of this first movement.

The minor key Scherzo, ironically, found the magical vein which had been lacking in the preceding Mendelssohn trio.  From delicate staccato passagework, Rogers rose confidently to the highest registers, penetrating the stratosphere with real power; off-beat accents destabilised the rhythm, adding to the drama.  The waltz-like Trio offered a warm counter-balance, but the players didn’t allow us to settle into complacency, whipping us swiftly back to restlessness with the restatement of the Scherzo.  The Adagio seemed to belong to another world.  The chorale-like theme was sombre but not without soul: if the monumental piano chords conveyed the stature of the grandest cathedral, then the sparsely textured interventions of the two strings suggested a gentle light penetrating the stained-glass windows.  Jenkinson relished the introspective melancholy of her melodies, and her wonderfully relaxed, honey-toned phrases offered us much to enjoy too.  The tender close was transcendent, even haunting.

The persuasive ‘sweep’ of the whole trio was furthered by the way the concluding Allegro seemed to commence in media res, probing forward with urgency.  There was much beauty but also anxiety in this final movement, the latter most present in the piano’s fiendish triplets, and the closing pesante chords reinforced the work’s stormy disquiet.

Claire Seymour

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