The Aquinas Trio Cross-cut the Classical with the Cinematic at Kings Place

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Brian Inglis, Schubert, Schumann: Aquinas Piano Trio (Ruth Rogers [violin], Katherine Jenkinson [cello], Martin Cousin [piano]), Kings Place, London, 28.1.2018. (CS)

The Aquinas Trio (Katherine Jenkinson, Martin Cousin, Ruth Rogers) (c) Aquinas Trio
The Aquinas Trio (Katherine Jenkinson, Martin Cousin, Ruth Rogers) (c) Aquinas Trio

Haydn – Piano Trio in C Hob.XV:27
Brian Inglis (b.1969) – Piano Trio (2017, world premiere)
SchubertNotturno in E flat D897
Schumann – Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.63

What’s the connection between a piano trio, popular music videos of the 1980s, cinematic cutting and cross-fading techniques, and aleatoric literary devices à la William Burroughs?  If you are stumped, then so was I, until I heard the Aquinas Piano Trio give the premiere of Brian Inglis’s Piano Trio (2017) at this London Chamber Music Society concert at Kings Place: then, all became ‘clear’.

The titling and description of Inglis’s Piano Trio suggest that rhythm, movement and metric relationships are its raison d’être and driving principles.  Divided into Part One and Part Two, the Trio’s two halves are delineated in terms of temporal divisions and relationships.  The form of Part One is thus described: ‘[crotchet] = 60; [crotchet] = 75; Cadenza; [crotchet] = 66 ‘with a sense of stasis’; senza misure.’  I confess, I felt a slight sense of foreboding when reading this seemingly dispassionate, mathematical categorisation, but in fact there proved to be plenty of ‘passion’ in the work, generated by the rapid-fire juxtapositions, alternations and altercations of Inglis’s score, as well as contrasts between syncopated propulsion, rhythmic hyper-tension and disturbing dissipation of movement.

Inglis’s materials are eclectic and at times combative.  He draws on gestures from diverse genres – jazz, the neo-baroque, Palm Court light music, to name but a few of the voices which jar against, superimpose upon, and fade into each other – and incorporates direct quotation (though I struggled to discern these on this single hearing), from piano trios by both Robert and Clara Schumann, Charles Alkan and Cécile Chamanade.  (Perhaps the gender ‘inclusiveness’ might be thought to match the ‘democracy’ with which the varied styles and languages are treated …).

At the start of Part One, a swinging beat came up against violinist Ruth Rogers jazzy, double-stopped riff, before cellist Katherine Jenkinson’s lyrical interruption gained ‘control’, supported by pianist Martin Cousin’s softly pulsing beats, only to be swept aside by the violin’s aggressive pizzicatos which invited the other instruments to join in the growing turmoil.  This relentless hyperactivity, change and interchange challenges the ear’s ability to take in diversity and detail, and after a strong surge of sound and energy, it was almost a relief when Cousin’s prepared piano gestures seemed to quieten Rogers’ stratospheric chattering and the frantic energy dissolved into quietude, the tension imperceptibly lessening into stillness and silence.

Part Two seemed to me largely to repeat the argumentative dialogues of the first Part, though this time there was an increase, rather than slowing, of velocity.  After a while, I had the impression of a musical tennis match with the players batting the musical material back and forth, courteously at first, then with growing aggression, and getting caught up in scraps which escalated into heated arguments which needed to be adjudicated by the authoritative piano-referee.  But, Inglis did add new interest in the second part and introduced extremes of texture and colour, asking Jenkinson to bounce her bow high off the string creating a stabbing effect, and both strings to pitch glissandi shrieks against the piano’s low, intoning pedal, and, at the close, to place pressure on the strings behind the nut, in the peg-box.

The Aquinas Piano Trio gave a committed performance and seemed to enjoy the protean, acrobatic argumentativeness of the music.  But, I wasn’t convinced that Inglis had brought together his many parts into a coherent whole: then again, maybe that was the point?

Inglis’s new work was the Aquinas Trio’s lone diversion from more ‘conventional’ classical fare in this recital, which marked the beginning of a three-part series exploring Robert Schumann’s three piano trios.  The concert began with Haydn’s C major trio HobXV:27 in which the brightness and fullness of the string sound, and Cousin’s sparkling piano melody, made the opening bars of the Allegro attention-grabbing and vibrant.  Cousin breezed through Haydn’s finger-twisting runs and skipped through the octave passages (described by Charles Rosen as ‘wrist-breaking’) with an unfailingly light touch.  There was a terrific sense of fecund invention, modulatory exploration and drama in the development section, and the recapitulation seemed to reprise the material with even greater buoyancy.

The theme of the Andante, presented by Cousin and passed gallantly to Rogers, combined an easy flow with a sense of poise or pride.  In this movement, the cello largely doubles the piano left-hand, and occasionally I found Jenkinson a little too prominent in the ensemble.  The playfulness of the Presto was infectious, Cousin again tripping briskly along with crystalline definition combined with warmth; the pianist crossed his hands nimbly in the minor key episode but brought a gruff stamp in the penultimate section, before the Aquinas Trio whipped up a whirlwind as they flew towards the final cadence.

The first half of the concert closed with Schubert’s Notturno, thought to have originally been intended as the slow movement of the composer’s Eb Piano Trio.  It’s a substantial work and I didn’t feel that the Aquinas quite had the measure of its whole architecture, as the sections expanded and enriched, then halted and began again.  However, they did balance strength and intensity – the piano’s chords gave stature to the strings’ opening theme, for example – with contemplative elation, and played with beautiful tonal richness.

After the interval, Schumann’s First Piano Trio offered the players the opportunity to get their teeth into a work of quasi-symphonic breadth and it was an opportunity that they relished, playing with a fulsome, glossy tone, technical accuracy, and dramatic and emotional engagement throughout.  The three musicians clearly enjoy playing together: they are relaxed and communicate constantly – physically, visually and expressively.  Rogers’ personal involvement with the music is apparent in an occasional smile; the rhythms seem to ripple through Cousin who is upright and alert; while Jenkinson’s facial gestures convey her unfolding emotional response.

The first movement, Mit Energie und Ledenschaft, swept forward with a churning contrapuntal force, from the very first bars; the interchanges between the players were driven by urgency and tonal weight.  There was a compelling lyric intensity and the ensemble balance was excellent; Cousin’s light interjections imbued the second theme with a refreshing airiness while Jenkinson’s low melody was richly sonorous.  In the development there were many striking timbres and textures, including glassy transparency from the strings and glistening tremulousness from the high piano.

The dotted rhythms of the scherzo, Lebhaft, doch nicht zu rasch, were strong but sprung with a nervous energy.  Rogers’s song-theme was focused and beautifully phrased at the start of the slow movement, Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung, and underpinned by the piano’s quiet elegiac depths.  The tragic intensity of this movement was impressively controlled, Jenkinson’s entry heightening the rhapsodic power; and impassioned climaxes were effectively counter-balanced by more intimate episodes.  As the music flowed segue into the finale, there was a tremendous sense of surging freedom and fire.  I eagerly await the second instalment of this series.

Claire Seymour

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