NZSM Piano Trio give superb concert of major works

Piano Trios by Beethoven (Op 70 No 1); Mendelssohn (Op 49); Dvořák (Op 65)

New Zealand School of Music Piano Trio (Martin Riseley, Inbal Megiddo, Jian Liu)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Thursday 24 November, 7.30pm

I was struck by the use of the word ‘irritability’ in Martin Riseley’s notes about Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio. I have no idea whether the word has been applied before by others, but it opened a different response for me; one that I found made me listen to it rather afresh.

That might be an initial feeling in the opening phase of the first movement, but it’s quickly replaced by a more positive emotion.  I do not usually find myself remarking much on the performances of individuals in chamber music ensembles; since the end of the eighteenth century the raison d’être of chamber music has been a collaboration between players, and I would rather promote that than encourage audiences to seek stars, and personalities (it’s bad enough that politics has become a popularity contest at the expense of a contest between political philosophies).

However, it was pianist Jian Liu whose playing seemed not just to dominate in terms of audibility, but which guided the character of the performances with such distinction. That is not unusual in a piano trio of course, compared with a string quartet; for the piano commands greater density of sound, most of the harmonic spectrum of the music and, to revert to the eighteenth century model, makes it hard sometimes to avoid the impression of a piano sonata with violin and cello accompaniment.

The Ghost trio is perhaps the most democratic of the three works played, with striking contributions early in the first movement from the cello, beautifully played by Inbal Megiddo; nor is the violin part secondary, though Martin Riseley, here and elsewhere, sounded less robust and rich in tone. The first movement felt somewhat hurried; hurried rather than energy-driven, and the rather perfunctory ending of the movement seemed to come too quickly.

After a lovely calm entry by violin and piano in the second movement, it was the cello that soon caught the ear as Megiddo invested it with a deep emotional intensity, and Beethoven seems to call on the cello to carry much of its dark quality . There is evidence that this movement had its source in music Beethoven sketched for an opera on Macbeth which never got beyond that; the conjuring of a ghost here always escapes me however, even though the piano enjoys some other-worldly growling in the bass regions.

In the last movement the responsibilities are more evenly distributed; it’s given to short phrases that break off and then take off in a different direction.

Mendelssohn’s first trio is very much the work of a young piano virtuoso, and here, more than elsewhere, was the main ground of my remark about the piano’s omnipresence, not just constantly, but in dazzling virtuoso mode which hardly let up. Yet the piano is rarely alone and it never dominated the ensemble, allowing equal the participation by violin and cello; indeed, both have their moments in the bravura spotlight; here too, no player was inclined to overlook the need to create a harmonious synthesis.

The second movement, often likened to one of the composer’s ‘songs without words’, never slipped from its quiet nobility: a particularly successful movement. The scherzo went so fast – as it should – that the players may well have barely saved themselves from minor stumbles.

The last movement filled one with admiration at the pianist’s ability to deliver dazzling, and visually beguiling virtuosity in the most charming, self-effacing manner.

Dvořák’s third piano trio is a serious affair, coming between the D major and D minor symphonies (Nos 6 and 7), of his full maturity. It followed the death of his mother in 1882; that accounts partly for its somber character; the other rather strong influence is that of Brahms. Riseley’s remark about the relative neglect of Dvořák’s large body of great chamber music is well said. Apart from the Piano Quintet, the American Quartet, the Dumky Trio, what is really much heard?

Dvořák was not notable as a pianist (though an excellent one in fact), yet it is again the piano part that commands attention here, though there is interesting writing for the two strings, both again giving glowing performances. The piano is hardly less busy than in the Mendelssohn in dealing with thousands of notes in breathtaking cascades, especially in the second movement, Scherzo.

However, I confess to finding the slow movement somewhat listless, and though it was played with insight and intelligence, I could not escape the feeling of note-spinning. Nor did the players really convince me in the last movement where the piano again rather subordinates the strings and it strikes me as having run out of steam before the end. Yet the players seemed determined to make the most convincing case for it, and they almost succeeded.

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