Streeton Trio, at Waikanae, offers persuasive, unfamiliar music but lacked a masterpiece

Streeton Piano Trio: Emma Jardine – violin, Meta Weiss – cello, Benjamin Kopp – piano
(Waikanae Music Society)

Debussy: Piano Trio in G minor
Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat, Op 11
Mendelssohn: Three Songs without Words (arr. Kopp)
Saint-Saëns: Piano Trio in E minor, Op 92

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 9 October, 2:30 pm

The Streeton Piano Trio was named for the important Australian painter Arthur Streeton, though I don’t know whether there was any reason for making the connection with the visual arts. The trio has twice toured New Zealand before, in 2012 and 2013, when they made a very good impression; Middle C reviewed their concerts at Waikanae.

Mozart dropped for Debussy
Their advertised programme had begun with Mozart’s early trio in G, K 49, but they changed that in favour of Debussy’s youthful trio of 1880, when he was 18. It wasn’t quite new to me as I’d heard a student group play it at the 2015 NZSM Queen’s Birthday Chamber Music Weekend in the Adam Concert Room at the school of music.

It was written during Debussy’s time teaching piano to the daughters of the wealthy Russian widow Nadezhda von Meck, who was most famous as Tchaikovsky’s patroness and close musical confidante for fourteen years. She apparently thought well of Debussy’s piece which she referred to as the ‘wonderful’ trio and it is thought to have inspired Tchaikovsky’s ‘wonderful’ piano trio, written just a year or so later.

While I was slightly curious about this immature creation then, the feeling of curiosity was replaced now by a certain disappointment at not discerning in the young Debussy much sign of the great talent and originality that was soon to emerge. It was quite pleasant, hinting at Fauré, with insipid melodies perhaps reflecting popular songs of the time. However, it worked nicely for the instruments, particularly between the two stringed instruments, and then between piano and cello. The second movement, Scherzo, had a certain character, employing pizzicato and staccato attractively; the Andante was somewhat dreamy and sentimental, though later showing some individuality.

The piece seemed to end with an appropriate close, but the music resumed just in time for the clapping not to start. The performance was polished however, the players clearly taking pains to draw all there was from the music and make the most of its limitations.

Beethoven’s Gassenhauer
Beethoven’s trio Op 11, nicknamed ‘Gassenhauer’, for the tune in the third movement that Beethoven took from an aria in a popular comic opera that was whistled in the street (‘Gasse’). It can hardly be called a youthful work as Beethoven was 27, but then he was not the sort of prodigy that Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn or Saint-Saëns were. It was scored originally for clarinet but also for violin. It’s a thoroughly high-spirited piece and the music is interestingly scored, resourceful and individual.

It was intriguing to compare the quality of the sentimentality evident in the second movement with what it meant for Debussy. Music may have become more complex harmonically, larger in scale and involving bigger orchestras and operatic forces by the late nineteenth century but the indefinable elements of cultivation, refinement and taste around 1800 were more elevated under the influence of the baroque and classical periods. By the end of the century as wider audiences, more bourgeois, emerged, the lighter genres of classical music became more shallow, frivolous and ephemeral.

So in the set of variations that comprise the last movement of the Beethoven, the players captured varied moods, between the reflective, the spirited, the fairly serious, culminating in a delightful fugal coda.

Mendelssohn’s piano into Kopp’s trio
The pianist Benjamin Kopp had been inspired by playing through Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words with the feeling that they somehow cried out to be arranged for piano trio. He confessed to taking various liberties with the pieces in the process in terms of fleshing out harmonic textures, changing rhythms and adding notes. Three were eventually chosen from a larger number of arrangements; they were Gondollied, WoO 10, Spring Song, Op 62 No 6 and the Op 31 No 1, E flat. In the end I wondered whether Gondollied wasn’t too decorated for its own comfort; the Spring Song sounded rather more tasteful and successful; and the last, blessed with one of Mendelssohn’s loveliest melodies, struck me as the most successful, handling the original with integrity. Certainly, all were played with great affection and though there was no claim to their forming a coherent piece of music they made an agreeable little suite.

The Saint-Saëns piano trio is one of those pieces that has tended to be neglected as a result of a quite wide-spread determination to disparage his ranking as a great composer, dismissing his music as insubstantial, ephemeral. It too, like the Debussy, I heard played by students last year and then by the NZTrio in Upper Hutt in October.

Yes, one can find uninspired music in his large output, but there’s a lot more that deserves a better press. And this is one that contains a mixture of the good and the less interesting. The first movement contains some impressive, urgent writing involving an attractive melody, interestingly developed and distributed among the three instruments.

Then there are three movements that are indeed somewhat inconsistent. The second, Allegretto, outlives the strength of its ideas, the Andante rates as very agreeable, and the third movement, Grazioso poco allegro is, as its title suggests, graceful but not especially serious. But the fifth movement, Allegro, returns to music of much greater variety, buoyancy and accomplishment, and its performance substantiated its virtues: a skilful and successful fugal passage, a spacious Beethovenish episode in a Gallic spirit, employing an unpretentious though attractive melody, ending in a Coda that springs mild, unpredictable surprises.

It was an interesting concert but suffered a little from the lack of at least one important and more arresting work.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *