Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Te Kōkī Trio
Music by BEETHOVEN, CLARA SCHUMANN and RAVEL
Martin Riseley (violin)
Inbal Megiddo (‘cello)
Jian Liu (piano)
Sunday, 6th September
This was a mighty concert experience – here were three musicians bent upon drawing all that they could out of the music and of themselves, resulting in performances of great excitement and intensity. The thrills and spills that inevitably came with such an approach simply added to the visceral nature of the experience, so that, at the end, we all felt we’d seen and heard something alive and real.
In making these opening remarks I’ve no wish to draw any comparisons with any other concerts I’d recently been to, all of which had their own particular qualities and delights. It’s just that, right from the opening measures of the Beethoven Trio with which the Te Kōkī Trio began their concert we were engaged, cheek-by-jowl, with the intensity of it all, right from that first, forceful opening chord. And while Jian Liu’s piano playing was spectacular in its adroitness and velocity, my ear was caught in particular by the detail of the varied dynamic observations and interactions between the players, all patently “listening” to one another, delighting in the observance of the first-movement repeat, and plunging us into a development featuring both dynamic irruptions and lovely harmonic explorations, beautiful colours glowing through the sounds.
The slow movement’s opening brought to mind a number of like themes from the composer’s piano sonatas, a beautifully languid contrasting episode begun by the ‘cello and joined by the violin working its continued magic before the piano took over the reins once more – a subsequent minor-key variation became very orchestral in these players’ hands, after which the piano returned with a more decorative recap of the opening, before a lovely pizzicato-quiet chordal ending. These players then truly relished the scherzo’s high spirits, with its skipping rhythms and strong accents, the performance generating incredible momentum in places (almost a precursor of the Op.135 String Quartet’s near-manic scherzo), tempered by occasional “drone” effects, and a brief, but attractively lyrical “swaying” trio.
That Haydnesque leaping piano figure at the beginning of the finale set the tone for what was to follow – energy, great good humour and lots of surprises (even a suggesting of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody at a couple of points!). The development section involved even more skin and hair flying in places, tempered by more sostenuto string passages – just for a bit of a breather! As for the surprise modulation towards the end – one can imagine the contemporary astonishment this would have caused (“Fit for the madhouse!” exclaimed Carl Maria Von Weber, at one of Beethoven’s similar symphonic divergences), this was tossed off with such easeful nonchalance, that it was the return to the home key which brought forth from us the grins and knowing winks – with the players’ hands and fingers flying over keyboards and fingerboards alike, the music roared to its joyous conclusion.
Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio seemed at the outset very much modelled upon her husband Robert’s manner, the work’s opening theme sombre and tense in true “Schumannesque” style. But thereafter it was Mendelssohn I kept on being reminded of throughout the opening movement, albeit with rather more adventurous modulations – the performers responded to the assured string-writing with strength and focus, the ‘cello often taking the lead, and the piano part never over-dominant (as one might have thought would be the case, from a composer regarded as one of the finest pianists in Europe). A wistful, piquant Scherzo followed, the rhythm rather like a dotted-note waltz with a Scotch snap, somewhat “teashop” in manner – I liked the group’s way with the Trio’s hesitant angularities, and how the string lines were floated so gracefully overhead.
Again, the finale’s sombre, somewhat anxious opening melody recalled Robert, the cello playing counterpointing the violin’s and piano’s presentation of the theme, before the piano picked up the tonal weight of the music and launched into a fugal passage, most convincingly “grown” from what had come before – the players really dug into the textures, before the piano again took the lead, returning to the opening, catching once again the music’s sobriety, but allowing a second subject some Mendelssonian grace and charm. These musicians also knew how to generate physical excitement, throughout a coda which gathered together and built up a mood of defiant certainty and even triumph at the end – a most attractive work, as presented here.
Rarely has one composer so openly acknowledged another’s influence on a specific work as Ravel did of Saint-Saens regarding his Piano Trio. The younger composer greatly admired his older compatriot’s resourceful use of the differing qualities of each individual instrument, and strove to emulate his example. Unlike many of his contemporaries such as Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok and Prokofiev, all of whom found the Piano Trio medium posed too many difficulties, Ravel was determined to tackle its challenges. He planned the work well in advance, and at one stage told a friend that he had “finished the Trio, except for its themes”! – which meant that he had worked out the piece’s architecture and structure before focusing on the actual content.
Right from the beginning there could be no doubt as to the identity of the composer – such a distinctive sound-world, however in thrall the latter might have been to anybody else’s example! Jian Liu’s magical playing of the “Basque” theme straightaway evoked Ravel’s characteristic other-worldliness, the strings in octaves adding strands of atmosphere to the ambience while keeping the textures tightly-focused. Even the tumble-down agitations had a light, feathery quality, as did the beautifully floated second subject, begun by the violin and limpidly accompanied by the other instruments – so lullaby-like, ethereal and tender. The players brought out the music’s ritualistic beauty, a dream-like ceremony, underlined by magical arpeggiations from the piano – gestures of transformation by wonderment! And, the movement’s end was pure enchantment, with sostenuto strings singing over softly chiming piano notes – the music here almost bewitching itself.
A playful, piquant scherzo movement alternated between surging impulses and more-or-less even-keeled trajectories throughout, the title Pantoum, somewhat obliquely referring to a type of Malayan poetry used by Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire, rendered by Ravel in terms of musical structure (too hard to grasp for a bear of little brain such as I!) But the sounds! – by turns colourful flecks and scraps of phrases, and then exuberantly sweeping dance-steps in 3/4 time, followed a wonderful central section where firstly the piano, then the strings fitted themselves into the same rhythmic pattern with a graceful 4/2 chorale-like melody. What freedom! – what colour! – and what abandonment in the performance!
And what a contrast with the following Passacaille, Jian Liu’s deep-throated piano-only opening building gradually to a rich and ritualistic outpouring of dignified emotion from all three instrumentalists, before the two string-players were left to take the music back to the depths from whence it came, handing the sombre lines back to the piano for a kind of return-to-the-source conclusion.
This having been buried deeply the finale straightaway found its antithesis in light and air, a wonderful kaleidoscope of impressions at the beginning, filled with those characteristic Ravelian impulses of colours and distinctive ambiences. From these beginnings the musicians drove the sounds unerringly through episodes of confluence and contrast – in places, tremendous attack from both Martin Riseley and Inbal Megiddo, along with great and forthright playing from Jian Liu. We thrilled, for instance, to those ringing mid-movement declamations from the keyboard, and were nonchalantly disarmed by the most beautifully murmured string trills, their dovetailing building up once again to some tumultuous tumblings of energy and well-being that carried us along in a Rimbaud-like “savage parade”.
At the end we were overwhelmed by a sense of these three musicians having risked all to bring about the music’s fruition, and triumphed – a great experience!