In an era of competition fatigue, there are still some, like the ARD Competition held in Munich, which are worth talking about. Since 1961, the multi-genres covering Munich had held the piano trio category ten times, only to give four first prizes. We were lucky to have a first prize winning group for the 11th edition held in September 2018, the Aoi Trio from Tokyo. It was very natural for Suntory Hall to title their appearance on 14th December a "Triumphal return concert". The Aoi Trio, formed in 2016 by Kyoko Ogawa (violin), Yu Ito (cello) and Kosuke Akimoto (piano); they worked here as fellows of the Suntory Hall Chamber Music Academy from September 2014 to June 2016.

Aoi Trio © Suntory Hall
Aoi Trio
© Suntory Hall

With a storm of applause, the three youngsters were welcomed back onto their familiar stage. The opening piece was Haydn’s Piano Trio no. 27 in C major, the music they played for the very first round at the ARD competition. For this charming music, the main character was pianist Kosuke Akimoto. Unlike recent young European pianists of his generation, Akimoto had no intention of imitating sounds of the fortepiano of the early classical era. Akimoto created a distinct sound from the modern piano, pure and beautiful, and clear from the lowest keys to the highest with no mannerisms. The second movement Andante was a platform for violin Kyoko Ogawa, Akimoto showing he knew how to be a decent partner in the best manner. The final Presto can be a noisy affair, yet the Aoi Trio kept their power under pretty good control. Well balanced "modern" Haydn.

The most problematic realisation for this evening should have been Brahms’ Piano Trio no. 1 in B major, Op.8. They used the revised version of the score, an exquisite mixture of the young, naive 21-year-old and the 57-year-old mature grand master. Interestingly enough, the trio had presented their interpretation of Brahms’ Third Trio in the second round of the competition, so this difficult piece was only for the preliminary taped performance. The approach of Aoi Trio to this music was very clear; they concentrated mainly on the young, lyrical Brahms and tried not to get involved in the intricate characters of the development section of the first movement too much. As a result, the singing voice of the violin sometimes dominated too much over the cello.

The considerably long concert concluded with Schubert’s great E flat major trio. Menaham Pressler, representing the jury members of the the 10th Munich Piano Trio category, acclaimed this piece as "a real treasure from Schubert for us, piano trio players"; yet boringly played, you have to endure sleepy 45 minutes. However, attending the Aoi Trio playing this huge score with youthful passion, it was impossible to fall asleep even for a moment. The pianist sounded almost like a virtuoso from the first note to the last, but never made a harsh sound. Ogawa and Ito, who had participated together in the Banff String Quartet Competition in 2017 as Quartet Arpa and know each other’s character and taste very well, controlled their balance and tone colors accordingly. Their delicate intonation at the searching coda of the second movement brought us somewhere beyond. A fairly moderate cello finally revealed his true eloquence in the last Allegro movement, leading the whole Blue Rose into the joyous moments-musicaux.