Admirable, stimulating programme of piano trios from Te Koki Trio

Te Koki Trio: Martin Riseley (violin), Inbal Megiddo (cello), Jian Liu (piano) – senior lecturers in Victoria University School of Music
(Wellington Chamber Music)

Brahms: Piano Trio in C minor Op. 101
Avner Dorman: Piano Trio No. 2
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67

St. Andrews on The Terrace

Sunday 20 May 3 pm

Gale-force winds outside might have been an appropriate accompaniment to Shostakovich’s frightful war-time masterpiece. But it was not necessarily a fitting way to characterise Brahms’s third piano trio. In spite of the remarks in the programme notes (in general, illuminating), and even though it’s in a minor key, I have never found the opening pages devoid of melody, or revealing an ‘unsettled nature’; though later movements might be so characterised.

However, Jian Liu’s reading of the opening chords might for a moment have supported the sense of the programme note. His first chords were so heavy that they dominated the violin and cello and I rather wished the lid had been down, as well perhaps as having the piano on a carpet. But the music soon shifts to the much more sustained, warm and heart-felt second subject that in fact seemed to characterise most of the movement, in spite of momentary returns of the more emphatic first theme. The imbalance between piano and strings didn’t recur.

The notes might have somewhat exaggerated the restless and haunted nature of the second movement which is considered the Scherzo, though not marked so. The minor key colours the entire work and even this ‘scherzo’ movement hardly produces a feeling of ecstasy or contentment. Much of it is staccato in character, permitting neither buoyancy nor delight. The singular feature of the work as a whole is the shortness of each movement – the second movement lasts only about four minutes. And the first was only about twice as long.

The Brahms we’ve waited for arrives in the third movement, and here Martin Riseley’s violin and Inbal Megiddo’s cello play alone for half a minute and they do so again after the piano had a brief contribution. The movement seemed all too short, as I couldn’t help feeling that the players longed for its prolonging and I even wondered whether there was actually a repeat that they were ignoring. There is not of course. Here was the quintessential Brahms writing the most expressive and alluring music, and the programme note’s ‘unsettled material’ and ‘irregular phrases’ were not very audible to me.

Even though the last movement remains in the minor key and there’s a seriousness of mind which the players showed their full awareness of, there’s no lack of melody, even if the tunes are sometimes stretched over a wide range, and the occasional staccato irruptions hardly encouraged the listener to drift into a feeling of contentment. The gentle rising and falling theme which becomes the heart of the movement was all too short.

Avner Dorman
The novelty of the concert was a 2002 trio by Jewish-American composer Avner Dorman. When I looked at YouTube, I was surprised to find scores of performances of a great variety of music by Dorman, though none of this piano trio. He has clearly attracted a large following for music that is distinctive and genuinely imaginative. His music seems often to begin in a comfortable, familiar manner, sometimes, like the present trio, with the utmost simplicity. It began with a simple four-note chorale-like motif, repeated in subtly changing ways, creating at least the impression of each instrument playing distinct phrases in different keys, while one became aware of the original motif continuing repetitiously below the evolving sounds above.

Dissonances slowly became more and more arresting and complex, curiously, not in a way that aroused frustration or irritation. Perhaps no dissonance can today really sound barbarous or outrageous because profligate use of it has diminished its impact, its capacity to offend. Just as swearing in public, on television and film no longer has the power to shock though I suppose there are still some who find it offensive just as some still find gross dissonance offensive. To me these passages were simply counterpoints or foils to the more conventional. The players gave every sign of commitment, persuaded that here was music that had something to say, music that was not imitative but which did not seek to be ‘original’ just to win academic brownie-points.

These situations are always interesting as some in the audience reacted with at least a little reserve, even disapproval. The second movement was faster, no less free with unorthodox harmony and darting, reckless rhythms. Sudden passages of meditative music, violin and cello bowing their way in adagio sequences; then rushing torrents, from high to low registers. One always searches for influences and these were hard to perceive; perhaps certain hints of Vasks or Pelecis came to mind, absurdly perhaps.

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio Op 67
Few pieces of chamber music in the 20th century pack the punch that Shostakovich’s 1944 piano trio does (unless it’s his Eighth String Quartet). I first came to know it through performances by the Turnovsky Trio (Sam Konise, Christopher Kane and Eugene Albulescu) in the 90s. The famous opening, starting with uncanny, false (or artificial) harmonics by using (with the cello) the thumb to shorten the length of sounding string, presaged an extraordinarily sensitive and expressive performance. One could dwell on the range of ‘effects’ employed by the piece, but it is better to consider the plain emotional impact of the music – a matter that should always come before academic consideration of the means by which it’s achieved.

Traditional descriptive musical language, Allegro con brio, hardly captures the real nature of the music, any more than the neutral moderato and poco piu mosso does of the first movement. Its brio isn’t altogether a mistake, but there’s a manic quality here, and with all the bite and energy these players adopt makes you sit bolt upright. It’s the third movement in which Shostakovich expresses the grief that war has plunged his country into, a sustained threnody which fades with dying piano notes to the piano’s grief-stricken staccato start of the last movement.

Though written presumably after the Siege of Leningrad had been lifted (January 1944; the composer had been evacuated from the city in October 1941) this movement remains one of the most graphic, emotional descriptions of war imaginable. And the playing varied from despairing to terrifying, to repetitive, violent passages interspersed with sudden pauses to reflect and regain one’s balance and equilibrium.

I found the whole programme, the choice of works and their committed and accomplished performance by these three senior lecturers in the School of Music totally engrossing. As I seem to say often, it deserved a far bigger audience; a few short years ago these concerts in the Ilott Theatre in the “How long must we wait?’ Town Hall used to attract a couple of hundred people, even in blizzard conditions.


One thought on “Admirable, stimulating programme of piano trios from Te Koki Trio

  1. Pauline Swann says:

    Thanks Lindis, agree with you absolutely and hae been to some wonderful lunch time concerts in St Andrews.
    However after the disaster venue sHED 6 ON fRIDAY NIGHT “HOW LONG MUST WE WAIT” for the Town Hall and Ilott theatre?

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