Koru Trio – giving the St.Andrews’s audience its koha’s worth and more……

The Koru Trio at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

BEETHOVEN – Piano Trio No.5 in D Major Op.70 No. 1 “Ghost”
ZEMLINSKY – Piano Trio in D Minor Op, 3

The Koru Trio – Anne Loeser (violin) / Sally Isaac (‘cello) / Rachel Thomson (piano)

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series, Wellington

Wednesday, 29th July, 2020

One of the largest lunchtime concert audiences I’ve seen at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace enthusiastically responded to two splendid performances by the Koru Trio, a group known to me up to now by reputation only – a quick check of the Middle C review archive confirmed that so far I’d not had the good fortune to review a single concert by the ensemble. I must record here that, long before the interval I was already bemoaning the opportunities I’d missed out on over the years, the Trio having been formed as long ago as 2011! In fact, to my astonishment and pleasure,  the concert replicated the excitement and interest of another I’d recently attended at the same venue, and had subsequently reviewed – that by the newly-formed Ghost Trio, coupling, as here, one of Beethoven’s masterly works in this genre with a lesser-known one by a different composer. On that earlier occasion it was the miraculous Op.1 Piano Trio of Andrzej Panufnik, while here, the Koru Trio after THEIR Beethoven performance gave us the no less remarkable, youthfully-conceived Op.3 Piano Trio of Alexander Von Zemlinsky.

First came the Beethoven Trio, Op.70 No.1, known popularly as the “Ghost”, a nickname attributed by most accounts to the composer’s former pupil Carl Czerny associating in later years the second movement’s evocative writing with the ghost of Hamlet’s father – interestingly enough, Beethoven was toying at the time of writing this trio with the idea of an opera about Macbeth, which accounts for the forgivable slip of association in the Koru’s otherwise excellent programme notes, which had Beethoven’s music recalling Hamlet’s encounter with his father “in Shakespeare’s Macbeth”! The work begins completely differently, of course with an exciting, energetic unison, here instantly grabbing the listeners’ attention with strong, focused playing, which continued throughout the lyrical response to the opening “helter-skelter”. The development began with “another way of doing the opening”, whimsical exchanges leading to major key exhortions and wonderful roller-coaster ride figurations, and left me relishing the thought of the composer’s chortling with exuberant glee at the “plunge” back into the recapitulated opening figure! As much as I loved the energy of the playing I was as much taken with the delicacy and feathery quality the players found in some of the writing, even if from where I was sitting the St.Andrew’s acoustic seemed to favour the piano at the strings’ expense.

Vibrato-less tones from the strings added to the slow movement’s “spooky” effect, the lines suitably eerie and suspenseful, punctuated by sudden bursts of tone and spidery keyboard descents and tremolandos – I thought pianist Rachel Thomson’s beautifully-sustained trilling and tremolandi helped create an almost Musorgsky-like atmosphere in places, with Anne Loeser’s and Sally Isaac’s string playing suitably spectral in attendance. The group marshalled the tensions to great effect – in places the tones were more “lament-like” than ghostly, with the two crescendi almost unnerving in their lack of inhibition. I thought that, as the movement’s end approached, the instrumental sounds in places became “as from the earth”, the music a mere conduit through which mysterious impulses were giving tongue.

A measure of relief was afforded by the first strains of the finale – a kind of “glad we’re out of there” feeling which burgeoned into exuberance in places, every player contributing to the buzz of activity, and sharing the bouts of momentary bemusement at the lines occasionally spinning upwards and disappearing in Houdini-like fashion, only to reappear as if descending by parachute! It made for a thoroughly invigorating entertainment, bristling with good humour and well-being, just the stuff needed! – a lovely performance!

Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Piano Trio made up the rest of the concert, the work exerting no less a fascination on an audience by this time in thrall to the blandishments of the music-making. The work’s Schumannesque opening – darkly passionate, as if its composer was “wrestling with ghosts” – alternated with contrasting sequences, a wistful longing which transforms into a feeling for the German woods with characteristic horn-calls evoking the romance of darkness and mystery. We heard long-breathed lines whose harmonies modulated in and out of the shadows in fine Romantic style, the influence of Brahms, who encouraged the younger composer, readily apparent (Brahms, incidentally, insisted that his own publisher print Zemlinsky’s work). A grand romantic summation ended the first movement, brought off here with great style and panache!

A warm, richly upholstered piano solo (in places bringing to my mind Janacek’s piano writing) began the slow movement, before violin and ‘cello joined in, and so initiated a most passionately-voiced threesome, bristling with impulsive sequences (amid which I caught an echo of Dvorak’s ‘Cello Concerto!) and reaching a kind of fever-pitch before subsiding, exhausted, into gentleness and rapture. By contrast the finale was all skitterish urgency and al fresco energy to begin with, accompanied by redolent hunting sounds from the piano, which fought a rearguard action to keep the strings on the move – I enjoyed the lively interplay between the opposing camps, Zemlinsky’s writing never predictable, and, in fact, saving a brightly-gleaming frisson of surprise and delight for the very end – a work I enjoyed getting to know, and through which the Trio made a lot of fun in sharing with us so joyously!



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