Visiting the Turner Sims for the second time this year on Sunday afternoon, the Vienna Piano Trio offered Haydn, Mozart and Brahms. For anyone unaware of the remarkable talents of this distinguished Piano Trio, the complimentary interval tea and slice of cake might have been an additional incentive for the near-capacity audience to curtail lunch for this 3pm performance. It was clear, however, from the first bars of Haydn’s Piano Trio in E flat, Hob XV:30 that free refreshments could not improve the experience of  superb musicianship from this internationally acclaimed ensemble founded in 1988.

The Vienna Piano Trio © Nancy Horowitz
The Vienna Piano Trio
© Nancy Horowitz

If Haydn’s 39 surviving piano trios are still amongst the composer’s most neglected works then this persuasive rendition of the E flat Trio ought to prompt a serious re-evaluation of these wonderfully inventive chamber works. At the very least this performance revealed both the musical personality of Haydn and, by extension, something of the character of Magdalene von Kurböck, for whom the Trio was conceived. Like many of Haydn’s works in this form the piano assumes a leading role and Stefan Mendl was not shy in guiding us through the melodic pathways of the thematically-rich and harmonically adventurous first movement. His delicacy of touch and responsiveness to Haydn’s ever changing textures was amply conveyed in the lilting Andante with its rapid keyboard figuration in the central section. At no point did the piano ever intrude on the balance between violinist Bogdan Božović and cellist Matthias Gredler who, throughout, were sensitive and superbly musically alert partners.

Mozart’s piano trios are, arguably, no more familiar than Haydn’s but again, the Vienna Piano Trio made it clear why we should get to know these works better – in particular Mozart’s Piano Trio in G major K.496 which comprised the second work in the afternoon’s concert. Composed in 1786, the G major trio was the first of six completed trios written for an expanding market that reflected recent developments of the piano and changing public tastes. As in the Haydn trio, the piano takes a prominent role in the Mozart, outlining all the main material in the first movement. If the violin and piano had several eloquent exchanges in the opening exposition, Mozart created a number of solo opportunities for the cello in the development. Whatever their significance in the ensemble, the players seemed to relish their respective parts, and at one point the violinist turned towards the audience, with a grin that seemed to say that even an accompanying passage of repeated quavers on a single note was fun. The Andante further demonstrated the Vienna Piano Trio’s capacity to converse with one another, responding to each other’s material with effortless spontaneity. Likewise, the sparkling theme and variation Allegretto seemed to be tailor-made for this ensemble where the fourth variation carries three distinct instrumental parts.  

After the interval, there followed a rare performance of the 1854 version of Brahms’s Piano Trio no. 1 in B major Op.8. This work prompted some reservations from Clara Schumann who, after its 1889 revision declared, “The Trio now seems to be a complete success”. Her initial problem was with Brahms’ creative ideas in the first movement (Allegro con moto) which she considered lacked a shapely structure. While this movement is certainly discursive, the Vienna Piano Trio made a convincing case for it in their articulation of the three distinct themes. If the fugue-like idea seemed out of place, then its chromatic contours were beautifully executed by the cellist. An invigorating Scherzo made the opening pianissimo bars of the Adagio all the more mysterious for their intensity and the drama of the finale was perfectly judged. In summary, this was an inspired performance of great music in a first-class venue. The audience can look forward to more from this group when the Vienna Piano Trio begins their residency here next season.