United Kingdom Beethoven: Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould [violin], Richard Lester [cello], Benjamin Frith [piano]). Wigmore Hall, London, 26.2.2023. (MB)
Beethoven – Piano Trio in G major, Op.1 No.2; Variations in E-flat major, Op.44; Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op.70 No.2
There have been starrier and higher-octane performances of Beethoven piano trios, but this Wigmore Hall concert from the Gould Trio had much to offer an audience permitted, as it were, to eavesdrop on an evening’s music-making between friends: nothing especially to prove, other than the players’ clear love of music and this music in particular. That and, I should add, a delightful vindication of the rarely performed Op.44 E-flat Variations.
First up was the G major Trio, Op.1 No.2, its first movement introduction broad and mysterious, yet clearly heading somewhere. But where? The main Allegro vivace emerged nicely, almost imperceptibly, though we were soon emphatically ‘there’. A few oddities of balance were to be heard in this notoriously tricky medium, but nothing that could not soon be ironed out. It was a pleasure to hear the development section driven motivically, especially via Benjamin Frith’s piano. As a whole, the movement struck the right note – for me – of sunniness, tinged by slight melancholy: Beethoven in G major. The second movement continued in expansiveness, with notably sweeter tone. The striking maturity of Beethoven’s writing here (1793) was relished and communicated, from rapt contemplation of the Kantian heavens to darker shadows below. Springing again from Haydn, yet similarly going beyond in new, surprising directions, the Scherzo might at times have had a little more edge, but better that than the merciless hard driving of so many recent Beethoven performances. Haydn’s conception of a Presto was certainly to be heard in the Finale, good-humoured yet tenacious. Perhaps the movement goes on a little, but if so, it was difficult to mind in so engaging a performance.
The theme, or ‘non-theme’, as cellist Richard Lester called it in a brief spoken introduction, of the Op.44 Variations was despatched straight, with a couple of opportune archings of eyebrows. Good-natured development allowed each musician – and instrument – moments to shine, Lester’s rich-toned yet variegated solo in the fourth variation a case in point. The sadness of the E-flat minor, Largo seventh variation registered without exaggeration, a case study in quiet transformation, both as composition and performance. An increasing array of techniques, palpably sincere, even when – particularly when? – at the cheekier end of the spectrum, was deployed to round off a fine performance of a work deserving of more frequent outings.
A ‘rarer’ tone was to be heard at the opening of the E-flat major Trio: not exactly ‘late’, yet already peering into that world. Comparison of introductions was instructive. Here, there was no doubt that every single note counted. Similarly, there was no doubt that the Allegro ma non troppo exposition, again clearly derived from what had gone before, was both more complex and yet, at least in some ways, more directly expressed. Subjective fragility was part of that, as were the surprises of developmental twists and turns. Throughout, the relationship – including, yet not restricted to balance – between instruments was well judged. Next, the players understood and conveyed the truth that, for Beethoven, ‘Allegretto’ is more a matter of character than speed. Both inner movements bore that character, yet sounded quite different. Haydn’s pupil is never more so than when he is being himself, the second movement playful and passionate, the third noble and almost infinitely subtle. The Finale was more fractured, intonation perhaps a little awry at times. Beethoven on edge, though, is no bad thing; the battle must never be too easily won. His undeniable radicalism was here given its full due. As an encore, we heard a charming arrangement of the Septet’s Minuet.