A LAST SURPRISE FROM A GRANDMASTER
The Festival’s weekend of music (24-26 June) continued gathering momentum with the second recital. This time it was a purely instrumental one featuring a well-knit piano trio formation of performers who originally come from three different countries. The pianist is Bulgarian, the violinist is Austrian and the cellist is from a Swiss-American background. This continues to highlight the usual international flavour of the VIAF.
The choice of programme was one of two works by Austrian composers and two by French ones. It was a good mix and also a good way to appreciate the change in styles and techniques not to mention the uniquely distinct personal stamp of each composer. It began with Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat Major, D. 28. Here the 15-year-old adolescent Schubert had his first work in the genre which he described as a Sonata while others refer to it as a fragment, a Sonatensatz. Not quite free from hints of Mozart, Haydn and the later, less-considered Salieri, there is still a clear hint of the budding genius of Schubert so well-projected by the trio. Close to the end of his short life, Schubert was to perfect his trio writing in the great pair of D898 and D899. Personally, I am most grateful to this trio of performers for granting me the opportunity to hear this early Schubert piece which I had never come across in other concerts here and abroad.
Camille Saint-Saëns was never one to shy from resorting to Germanic and other influences and trends. Some of his chamber works more than give a nod to composers like Mendelssohn. Never slavish through mere imitation, he adorned his work with his own personal stamp, one of a certain litheness and taste, balanced and melodious, and, so easily recognisable as his. The Piano Trio N. 1 in F Major, Op. 18 is a typical case. It was ground-breaking and considering his very long life, it could be considered a relatively early work. He never touched the genre for another 30 years. The energy of the opening Allegro vivace maintained grace and articulate elegance throughout. I could not agree more with the programme note describing the dominant theme of the Andante as mysterious and slightly sinister. It was around sooner or later no matter which turn the music took. The brief scherzo came as a playful relief from that ubiquitous 15-note ideée fixe. The interaction between the three performers provided some fast but controlled articulate exchanges such as pizzicato strings and staccato piano and the mood remained a happy one and one of finely polished playing.
The other Austrian composer featured in this recital was Haydn. He was more prolific than all the three other composers in this programme. They composed just over a handful of piano trios while Haydn composed a few dozen of them. They are deeply embedded in the Classical style, very matter-of-fact and to the point. His Piano Trio in F sharp minor, Hob. XV: 26 is a rare key for him and is a most charming work. It could be that its evergreen appeal is due to the fact that it is a very personal work dedicated to a lady of special significance. Compose to London where he was lionised by Society. The key changes in the sonata form opening Allegro account for a certain tension and the crispness of playing prevailed in the lovely slow Adagio, in places sounding like a reverie and there was also place for some prominence to be accorded to the violin. The work was concluded with Tempo di minuet. This conjures up different moods: the elegance and poise on one side and the delicate and dark sides of things. It is offset by the trio section which is all charm and wit until the mood of the opening of the movement returns to conclude in a pretty emphatic tone.
The last work this evening was probably another last because Fauré’s Piano Trio in D minor Op. 120 was probably his last. A major work despite its brief 18 minutes it was a result of struggling hard against what he felt was an impossibility to compose anymore. After toying with the idea of a different line-up he decided on violin joining the cello and piano. It was premiered a year and a half before he died. It soon became a popular work with performers and audiences. It was noted that he did not write too many notes but all he wrote was enough to develop his ideas. The opening Allegro ma non troppo while under restraint still manages to project a lot. It has rich melodic attraction. Certain elements revive childhood memories and Fauré’s generally despondent state of mind of the composer before he decided to compose this work. This is reflected in elegiac writing as well as airing a kind of complaint. The reaction against this is the powerful and determined coda. The long Andantino calls for utter lyricism from the strings with the piano’s interaction providing an atmosphere of pure pathos. Speaking of surprises, in the final Allegro vivo, there are repeated, desperate cries reminiscent of Canio’s “Ridi Pagliaccio” in Leoncavallo’s famous opera premiered 30 years earlier. Was it a coincidence or not, and either way, does it really matter? As she observes in her usual excellent programme notes, Maria Frendo says that this allusion “…introduces an elegantly rumbustious, thumpingly accented plein air rustic dance, a last surprise from the great master”.
Albert George Storace