Two Great Piano Trios
BEETHOVEN – Piano Trio in B-flat Op.97 “Archduke”
SCHUBERT – PIano Trio in B-flat D.898
Benjamin Morrison (violin) / Jane Young (‘cello) / David Vine (piano)
St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday 8th July 2012
It was really Christchurch-born violinist Benjamin Morrison’s show, though, of course he couldn’t have played the “two great piano trios” on his own. So, joining him for this concert and making up what one might call an “ad hoc” group, were ‘cellist Jane Young, currently principal ‘cello in the Vector Wellington Orchestra, and David Vine, well known Wellington-based pianist, conductor and scholar. The ensemble had come together primarily for Ben Morrison’s benefit – he’s on a visit “home” from his current studies in Graz, Austria, where he’s completing a Masters degree in Solo Violin and Chamber Music. He’s played a good deal of chamber music while in Europe (and it shows), as well as competing and winning prizes in several competitions – for example, the National Chamber Music of Austria Competition,”Gradus ad Parnassum”.
Throughout the afternoon the three musicians played as their lives depended upon the outcome, with all the attendant thrills and spills one might expect from the circumstances. Of course, given the popularity of each of these wonderful trios, one can too easily take for granted their ever-present difficulties – while the music , in each case, can survive less-than-capable performances and still make an impression, everything properly blossoms and beguiles when, as here, the playing demonstrates a certain level of skill and understanding. There were moments which brought certain individual insecurities, but the ensemble rarely, if ever, faltered, and the essential strength and lyricism of each of the works was conveyed with enthusiasm and commitment.
While St. Andrew’s Church wasn’t filled to bursting, there was a sufficient number present to generate a keen listening atmosphere, with tingling lines connecting the sounds made by the players to their listeners’ ears. In this respect I thought Morrison’s playing in particular outstanding, his tone having a vibrancy at all times that, whether loud or soft, conveyed to us exactly what degree of feeling or colour was required of each phrase. I write this somewhat guiltily, as I’m realizing the extent to which I focused my attentions upon him throughout the concert, probably to the detriment of my registering what the others were doing. But I thought his playing most deservedly compelled such attention throughout.
First up was the Beethoven, marked here by restrained, very “reined-in” playing from pianist David Vine at the outset, obviously taking some time to settle, but nevertheless establishing a pulse which enabled the string players to fill out their lines amply with plenty of inflection and subtle colorings that suggested a conversation of equals. It was good to get the exposition repeat in that respect – twice the pleasure, and filled with interest registering the effects of “experience” upon the music, the interaction between Morrison and ‘cellist Jane Young a particular delight. The players enjoyed the “misterioso” elements of the development’s beginning, as well as relishing the exchanges of pizzicati notes, managing a proper surge of energy taking the music to the reprise of the “big tune”. In other words, the music’s ebb and flow was shaped most satisfyingly throughout.
The scherzo was distinguished by fine rhythmic pointing, apart from a slight hiccup at the top of one of the fugal-like phrases early on. The players made something terrific of the more trenchant passages, burgeoning their tones excitingly during each crescendo, and leaving us expectantly awaiting each subsequent wave of energy. Again, Ben Morrison’s playing projected a real sense of relishing both strivings and outcomes, giving plenty of musical substance to both his colleagues and to the audience. And the slow movement grew from the hymn-like opening throughout its variation movements as flowers gently and gloriously open in the sun, the players giving all the time in the world to the process of integrating a sense of arrival with a feeling of further exploration, thus preparing the way for the finale.
Here, the trajectories were delightfully bucolic, the performance surviving a bumpy patch amidst the tremolando-like pianistic figurations, and keeping its poise right through to the coda, which was excitingly done, the “schwung” of the of the music kept to the fore despite the occasional spills. What was particularly thrilling was the élan with which Ben Morrison threw off those concluding figurations, serving notice of an artistic coming-of-age which we all anticipate enjoying on occasions in the years to come.
After the Beethoven, the Schubert seemed more relaxed, the opening having a “Frei, aber froh” feeling about its forthright energies, not epic, heroic statements here, but still very Schubertian, very “gemächlich” or relaxed, a feeling further underlined by the lyrical second subject. I got the feeling throughout this movement, rightly or wrongly, with Ben Morrison’s playing, that he “sees” the music as if from a great height, and so is able to shape each paragraph of the symphonic argument with great surety, ably supported here by ‘cello and piano. The trio caught the music’s physicality in places, coming through not exactly unbloodied, but definitely triumphant.
The gem of this Trio is, of course, the slow movement, containing one of the composer’s loveliest melodies, and here sung to great effect by all concerned, especially by the violin. Ironically, it was in this movement, during the violin’s chromatic ascent from the central agitations back to the melody’s reprise, and again, briefly with the ascent to the final note, that the player’s intonation uncharacteristically wasn’t spot-on; but the ‘cello’s heavenly accompanying of the violin throughout this section, underpinned by the murmuring piano, banished all thoughts of human fallibility for just a short, treasurable moment in time.
Though I thought the Scherzo took time to settle rhythmically, the players managed the trickily-stressed dovetailing in places with great nimbleness, then relished the “cradle-song” aspect of the Trio for their own and for our pleasure. The cheekily-played opening of the finale had the theme passing from player to player, then adding to the insouciance with a strutting “Hungarian-like” episode, and further flavoring the experience with some ghostly shimmering from the strings – all very discursive, but held together with fine concentration, and a flair for characterization, the violinist demonstrating by turns his accompanying as well as his “leading” skills throughout.
At the piece’s conclusion, the audience was quick to show its appreciation of the performances, and in particular of Ben Morrison’s remarkable talent as a musician.