United Kingdom Beethoven, Schumann, Dvořák: Midori (violin), Antoine Lederlin (cello), Jonathan Biss (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 16.1.2018. (CS)
Beethoven – Piano Trio in G major Op.1 No.2
Schumann – Phantasiestücke Op.88
Dvořák – Piano Trio No.3 in F minor Op.65
London audiences were lucky indeed that Japanese-American violinist Midori, American pianist Jonathan Biss and the Belcea Quartet’s French cellist, Antoine Lederlin, decided to make the Wigmore Hall the final destination of a short tour of Germany where they had given performances in Ansbach, Stuttgart, Munich and Halle.
For, this was both an exquisite recital and a generous one, offering three substantial works from the repertory for piano trio which allowed us to appreciate the way the genre evolved during the nineteenth-century, as composers’ appreciation of the opportunities and possibilities that the form could offer developed and expanded. In the second of his Op.1 trios, the twenty-four-year-old Beethoven could be heard paying homage to ‘Papa’ Haydn while simultaneously experimenting with the formal balance of the Classical style, creating a Piano Trio of innovative breadth. Schumann, too, seems to cast an eye towards late-Haydn in the first two movements of his 1842 Phantasiestücke, but the mood-painting in these character-pieces is charged with a distinctly Romantic sensibility – a sensibility which Dvořák swells to quasi-symphonic dimensions in his tempestuous F minor Trio.
These different, but related, formal and expressive worlds were clearly delineated by this trio of musicians, who have collaborated regularly during the last ten years. In many ways they seem to be ‘perfect’ musical partners, the playing of each characterised by meticulousness, refinement and beauty of sound: exquisite, shared artistry. During this recital, the lucidity and coherence of the musical ‘thinking’, expression and execution was almost tangible. The musicians combined humility with absolute commitment and concentration, evidently concerned only to serve the music.
Haydn advised Beethoven to delay the publication of his Op.1 trios, which were composed in 1794-95, but he ignored the ‘master’s’ advice and went ahead (dedicating them to Prince Carl von Lichnowsky), and one can hear the young Beethoven’s ambition and innovative spirit even in this second trio, the least exuberant of the three. There is a new sense of scale, one which permits the composer to embrace diverse moods which the players here characterised discerningly.
Biss’s sonorous tone communicated the rhetoric of the opening Adagio, thereby establishing the breadth of Beethoven’s intent, but gravity was immediately countered by a lightness which is never far away, or absent for long in this trio, in the form of Midori’s simple, nonchalant reply. The violinist’s tone is impeccably refined – pianissimos hover with the grace and preciousness of threads of soft silk – but the sound is quite slender. And, this did, I feel, affect the balance in the Allegro vivace that ensues. Midori’s style combines a flowing ease with muscularity and definition, but, watching her play, it was as if one could ‘see’ the power, but not hear it. Biss, though unwaveringly sensitive, dominated the texture and I wondered if Lederlin was holding back a little to match his fellow string player.
There was plenty of character in this Allegro, though, and the architecture – of phrases and larger sections – was persuasively and confidently defined. The clarity and grace of Biss’s running semiquavers, whether melodic or accompaniment, were refreshing – there was air as well as strength – and the piano bass drove the motivic invention forward in the development section. Greater equality of voices was achieved in the Largo con espressione. The tempo was ‘just right’, hovering on the line between hymn-like sobriety and the easeful lilt of a siciliano. As Midori’s serene lines intertwined with Lederlin’s warm responses, and Biss’s ripples fell like droplets on cool water, it seemed we might be transported to ‘other worlds’, as the long coda unfolded. With his quiet, rising motif at the start of the Scherzo, however, Lederlin drew us back to reality: a world of unblemished elegance, as conjured by the delicacy of the staccato motifs and accents, the graceful ornamentation and, not least, Biss’s delicious diminuendo through the long trill which closes the Trio section. There was terrific rhythmic impetus in the Presto but perhaps a greater contrast of dynamics and articulation would have heightened the Haydn-esque wit which enlivens this movement. Impressive once again, though, was the players’ appreciation of how the structure contributes to the music’s arguments: the ‘punctuation’ points were marked with assurance and naturalness, and Beethoven’s droll conclusion was insouciantly despatched.
The careful delicacy and sensitivity of the ensemble’s manner imbued Schumann’s character pieces with a beguiling intimacy. The flowing song of the brief Romance was laden with tenderness while the Humoreske picked up the rhythmic lilt of the opening vignette and transformed it into a more assertive form, as the repetitions of the diminishing falling motif, Midori’s dancing up-bows, judicious accents, and an unwavering rhythmic tautness pushed the music forward.
Mendelssohn cast a benign shadow over the Duett, a quasi-‘song without words’, and again we could enjoy the crystalline silver of Midori’s E-string gleam as it entwined with Lederlin’s supremely relaxed melodic utterances, supported by Biss’s gently rippling undulations. The players took care to convey both the lightness and the shade, and used small pizzicato gestures to enhance changes of mood. The marching Finale was vigorous but always refined, as the contrapuntal complexities of the movement were skilfully shaped. It would be good to hear these Phantasiestücke programmed more regularly.
After the interval, the musicians approached Dvořák’s F minor Trio with exuberance and passion but again the sound was never less than utterly polished. The accord between the two strings – the tone was intense, the unison gestures perfectly tuned – and the power which rose from the piano’s bass, carried the Allegro ma non troppo forward with unceasing urgency as the music swept restlessly through swiftly changing moods. At last, too, we heard real strength from Midori, a Brahmsian weight and warmth to the sound, which added to the sense of elegy and of struggle. Passion never obscured clarity of vision though: the handling of the movement’s closing passages – which push on, then lapse, momentarily, into wistfulness, before a low pedal impels the quest for resolution – was exemplary, confirming the players’ rhythmic unanimity and precision, and their ability to shape phrase and larger strophes with subtlety.
The leggiero string-crossings in the Allegretto grazioso provided a delicate bed of sound for Biss’s lightly articulated melody but the music was never allowed to fully relax, and there was a wonderful intensification, of tension and harmonic darkness, towards the cadences. The piano’s cascades triggered corresponding sweeps in the strings, and a ‘deep breath’ was needed before the calmer meno mosso. Lederlin’s lovely melody at the start of the Poco adagio was imbued with a hint of darkness by the piano’s low bass, then brightened again as Midori carried the phrase higher. The radiance, eloquence and expressive richness of this movement – the peak of which the central episode in which Midori’s immaculate, haunting melody soared supremely – recalled the expansiveness of Beethoven’s Largo.
The players were more than a match for the stamina and clear-sightedness which Dvořák demands in the Finale: Allegro con brio. Perhaps, overall, in this F minor Trio a little more impetuousness, even ‘wildness’, might have conveyed the inner battles and anxieties with which Dvořák wrestled during the composition of this work – which was written shortly after the death of his mother and at a time when others were urging him to take bold leaps in his own compositional methods – and which infuse the diverse and deep musical moods. But, this was a concert in which shared integrity and masterful musicianship were uppermost. As near ‘flawless’, perhaps, as music can be.