Phoenix Piano Trio Capture Spirit of Haydn, Gade and Schubert

United Kingdom Haydn, Niels Gade, Schubert: Phoenix Piano Trio (Jonathan Stone [violin], Christian Elliott [cello], Sholto Kynoch [piano]), Kings Place, London, 20.11.2016. (CS)

Sholto Kynoch, Christian Elliott and Jonathan Stone.
Sholto Kynoch, Christian Elliott and Jonathan Stone

Haydn – Piano Trio in E flat Hob.XV/30
Niels Gade – Novelletten, Op.29
Schubert – Piano Trio No.1 in B flat D898

Haydn called them ‘accompanied piano sonatas’, today we prefer the term ‘piano trio’, but the 43 works that Haydn composed for piano, violin and cello are gems of invention and surprise.  The form was popular in contemporary domestic circles, but this in no way limited Haydn’s creative liberty and innovation.  Indeed, the context of private performance seems to have allowed the composer to give free rein to his most fertile, innovative resourcefulness.

The Phoenix Trio’s performance of the Piano Trio in E flat Hob.XV/30 certainly captured the emotional range of the work, and the ensemble relished Haydn’s unexpected modulatory twists and turns, while demonstrating a sure appreciation of the underlying structure.  The opening theme of the extensive first movement, Allegro moderato, was strongly defined, its rising three-note ascending motif and decorative turn stylishly executed.  But there was also an inherent rhythmic elasticity and the Phoenix Trio created a strong sense of the undercurrents of energy rustling beneath the expansive opening theme.  They summoned an almost Beethovian vitality; and it’s worth remembering that by the time that Haydn had composed this, his last, trio, Beethoven had published his three Op.1 piano trios, sending the form in new directions.

Violinist Jonathan Stone plays with an oxymoronic blend of grace and vigour.  He holds the bow elegantly, quite high up the stick, almost in the manner of a period instrumentalist, and coaxes a sweet tone from his violin, as was evident here in the violin’s dulcet melody.  Pianist Sholto Kynoch made a fluid sweep of the first movement’s running semiquavers, and danced lightly through the passage work of the development section, creating a compelling forward momentum which was complemented by flexible counterpoint between the two stringed instruments.

The piano lid was raised and at times the balance was not ideal.  Although Haydn’s ‘accompanied sonatas’ have a wide range of musical expression, it’s still the case that the piano often dominates, and performers need an acute perception of the fluctuating relationships between strings and piano if the collective nature of the expression is to be fulfilled.  I would have liked more assertiveness from cellist Christian Elliot, who phrases with sensitivity and delicacy but whose lines were sometimes overwhelmed by the busy piano part.

The Andante had plenty of compelling con moto.  The Phoenix Trio did not overdo the theme’s chromatic nuances, and the graceful dotted rhythms of the opening building into an animated central section – as if we first observed the dance and then heard the impassioned conversations of its participants.  The rich low register of the opening was dark and plush, the C major allowing Haydn to exploit the cello’s lowest open string at the start of phrases.

The triple-time Presto finale follows segue, effected by means of a cadential lurch back to Eb, in preparation for the unsettling off-beat accents of the German dance.  Here again there was a scent of Beethoven’s vigour, although a slightly lighter touch might have been preferable.  But Haydn’s boisterous arguments were revealed to have been crafted with sophistication, and were delivered with virtuosic flair.

The work of the long-lived and prodigious Danish composer Niels Gade (1817-90) forms a bridge in the musical life of the nation, between Buxtehude in the 17th century and Nielsen in the late 19th century.  It was a real treat to hear Gade’s Novelletten Op.29, which was composed in 1853 and remained a popular and oft performed work until the end of the century.

Schumann wrote that he could detect ‘the lovely beechwoods of Denmark’ in Gade’s music, and in the hands of the Phoenix Trio the five movements of the Novelletten were refreshingly rich and warm.  Here, too, in addition to consummate technical assurance, the Phoenix achieved a more satisfying chamber-music conversation between equal voices.

The explosive Allegro scherzando had an infectious energy reminiscent of Mendelssohn, with whom Gade became close friends, after his first symphony was premiered at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig – a performance which led Mendelssohn to offer Gade a post at the conservatory.

Gade was not just Denmark’s best musical export during the nineteenth century, he was also an excellent violinist, and his writing for the instrument, as evidenced by the Novelletten, blends a rigorous Classical line with lyrical Romanticism.  Stone captured the exuberance and incisiveness of the violin’s rising gestures in this opening Allegro scherzando, and Elliot enjoyed the more extrovert melodic role now afforded to the cello.  The movement seemed to surge forward impassionedly before closing in a lighter vein.  The expansive, exploratory arcs of the Andantino con moto theme, introduced by the cello and violin, were full-toned and generated a surprising energy which was tensely stifled by the marcato semiquaver triplets of the sparser, quieter central episode.

The strong rhythms of the march-like Moderato were marked but not over-done and were succeeded by a Trio-like episode which was deliciously light and gentle.  Though the accented arpeggio motifs were reprised, it was elegance that had the last word, the strings sustaining double-stopped chords as the piano danced from the depths to the heights of the keyboard with a fairy-like fleetness and grace redolent of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Larghetto con moto opened rhetorically with spread chords from the piano introducing the strings’ yearning theme, which Elliot shaped with especial refinement.  We were back in Mendelssohnian territory for the final Allegro which raced to the close with breezy nonchalance.  The Phoenix Trio expertly captured the particular spirit of each of these five character-pieces.

From the little-known we moved to one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre – and of the composer’s oeuvre: Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat D898.  The Phoenix Trio savoured Schubert’s unceasing stream of seemingly spontaneous melodic invention.  The rising triplets which characterise the first, soaring theme of the Allegro moderato initiated a buoyancy and spirit of adventure that never flagged.  There was an underlying urgency and a persistent driving force even in the Andante un poco mosso, which opened with the cello’s deeply expressive, poised song, but whose central section was somewhat brooding in quality, as the strings’ syncopation accrued intensity.  The Scherzo: Allegro had a truly joyful spring in its step.  The movement was a high-spirited gallop of eddying quavers and nimble staccato crotchets, which was only temporarily relieved by the quiet waltz of the Trio.  And, the life-affirming energy garnered blew through the Rondo finale, exciting and turbulent by turns.

Claire Seymour

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