If a programme comprised solely of minor-key works implies gloom and doom, that doesn’t account for the sheer joy of music-making that three great musicians performing together can impart. The real draw of this Barbican concert was pianist Martha Argerich, but it was a shared event, trading on chamber music partnerships old and new that have been the hallmark of her career. She and cellist Mischa Maisky are now into their fifth decade playing together; violinist Janine Jansen is a newer recruit to Team Martha but no less accomplished. Across two duo sonatas and a pair of piano trios – somewhat different from their originally advertised programme – the threesome gave a masterclass in profound artistry.

Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich © Tom Howard | Barbican
Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich
© Tom Howard | Barbican

Maisky and Argerich began with the second of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, Op.5 no. 2 in G minor. Despite the composer’s liberation of the solo cello from its basso continuo role, this early work is nevertheless still a sonata ‘for piano and cello’, and Maisky was happy to take the proverbial back seat as required, though he brought literally foot-stomping energy to the opening of the central movement (he could do with some softer-soled shoes) and a lovely playfulness to the finale; only the forceful coda seemed a little tacked-on.

The first trio of the evening was Shostakovich’s harrowing Second in E minor, written as a memorial to a close friend and yet more generally seeming to reflect the horrors of wartime with its klezmer-fuelled dance of death. There was a visceral rawness to the players’ approach, with no shying away from tonal coarseness in Jansen and Maisky’s initial sparring. There was a foreshadowing of the passacaglia in Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, written just a few years later, in Jansen’s poignant unwinding of the melody at the start of the Largo, an effect matched in Maisky’s response. In the fearsome finale, Argerich’s ability to maintain clarity in even the fastest music lent added sense of menace. In all, this was a triumph: a turbulent, risk-taking, edge-of-seat interpretation from all three.

Martha Argerich, Janine Jansen and Mischa Maisky © Tom Howard | Barbican
Martha Argerich, Janine Jansen and Mischa Maisky
© Tom Howard | Barbican

After the interval, Schumann’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in A minor could have come across as quite sober by comparison, yet Jansen’s playing in the opening movement was passionately committed, digging into the triple-metre flow of the melody without compromising tonal suavity. The central Allegretto was teasing and capricious and the finale was fiery. In another virtuoso piano part, Argerich made the case for this sonata being a true duo of equals in playing that was as lithe, characterful and forceful as that of her partner.

Martha Argerich, Janine Jansen and Mischa Maisky © Tom Howard | Barbican
Martha Argerich, Janine Jansen and Mischa Maisky
© Tom Howard | Barbican

Finally, all three players returned to the stage for Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor – yes, yet another minor-key work, but one that despite this seems constantly to be yearning for the sunnier world of the major key. Maisky’s opening D minor theme sounded stern, but his duetting with Jansen in the singing second subject came as balm, and Argerich contributed her own dazzling pianism in the movement’s coda. In the Andante, Maisky may have briefly allowed his cello to swamp Jansen’s theme with his counter-melody but it all came right in the end and tasteful balance was resumed. The scherzo was taken at a hair-raising speed, with Argerich’s semiquavers flying along at a rate of knots and inspiring an audible gasp from many in the audience as the movement signed off with almost saucy pizzicatos from the two string players. If the finale didn’t have quite that lightness of touch, it surged along and capped an evening in which the three players didn’t merely interpret the music they were playing but lived it.

*****