It’s often said that chamber music is all about equality. Ideally, a chamber group – with just one player per part, and each part vital to a greater musical whole – invokes the spirit of egalitarianism and camaraderie.
At the head of the table sits the string quartet, blending together like a single glorious instrument.
Arguably, the piano trio comes next. However, the combined sounds of a violin, cello and piano can’t be made to blend in the same way a string quartet can. They always sound like three different instruments, and must find other ways to achieve balance and cohesion.
Perhaps this is why there are fewer piano trios than string quartets – and why hearing a top-notch piano trio is a rare treat.
Patrons of Toronto Summer Music had this pleasure on Wednesday evening. They filled the University of Toronto’s Walter Hall to hear the Vienna Piano Trio in a program of works by Haydn, Brahms and Schumann.
In its 23-year history, this Austrian ensemble has only gone through one personnel change: Cellist Matthias Gredler joined the trio in 2001. The other two players – violinist Wolfgang Redik and pianist Stefan Mendl – have been in the group since the beginning. So they’ve had time to work out some ideas together.
In so doing, what they’ve achieved is an admirable unity of purpose, with a strong narrative and dramatic quality to everything they do. Even when their playing intensifies – occasionally to extremes – they remain on the same conceptual page, working toward a common musical goal. Furthermore, they’re all so highly skilled technically that technique simply isn’t an issue.
Haydn’s Piano Trio in A Major Hob. XV No. 18 had a lightness and transparency that was entirely appropriate. Yet it soon became apparent that the ensemble’s seemingly innocent approach to this work was a little less ingenuous than it sounded. This was refined and calculated playing – as if to say that Haydn can be lots of fun, but only if you take him seriously enough.
In the first movement there was discreet sophistication in the sudden shifts of dynamics and tempo. The second movement was a study in classical elegance, all understated grace and charm. And the famously perky final movement was a playful romp, with Mendl making the most of the “wrong note” appogiaturas in the piano part.
Leaping forward nearly a century to Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, the Vienna Piano Trio adopted a different approach. Suddenly a new kind of energy could be heard – a solid, durable forcefulness that made it clear there was lots more where it came from. Phrases were long, as crescendos built slowly and relentlessly.
Indeed, there were passages in the second movement when this energy became positively brutal. But the players never lost control, and these moments contrasted very well with the gentle sweetness that followed. The third-movement Scherzo was alternately furtive and lyrical. And the last movement pressed forward to a triumphant conclusion.
Schumann’s expansive Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor was different again. From the outset, the trio adopted a fluid and florid approach, without ever losing their firm sense of direction. In the second and fourth movements, the trio achieved striking rhythmic effects, accenting off beats in surprising yet effective ways. Sandwiched in between was a tender third movement, with some touching playing from the violin and cello especially.
More Schumann followed, with the second movement of his Piano Trio No. 3 in G as a fitting encore.
© Colin Eatock 2012