It’s always interesting to watch star soloists making sweet chamber music together: musicians you’re used to seeing in the concerto spotlight thrown together as equal partners in the recital room. But when the names are as stellar as Lisa Batiashvili, Gautier Capuçon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, you’re going to need something bigger than a recital room. For the London leg of their European tour, the Barbican played host to a varied programme of Shostakovich, Ravel and Mendelssohn in which the trio deftly donned a range of disguises as easily as a chameleon camouflaging itself in its variegated surroundings.

Lisa Batiashvili
© Sammy Hart | DG

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no. 1 in C minor was a very early work. He was just seventeen when he composed it, recuperating from bronchial tuberculosis in the Crimea, where he had fallen in love with Tatyana Glivenko, to whom the trio is dedicated. It has none of the anger or acerbic wit of his later works. Written in a single movement, it is an often passionate outpouring and was given the full romantic treatment here, Batiashvili and Capuçon cast as the courting couple – leaning in towards each other confidentially, eyes locked in adoration – with Thibaudet playing gooseberry at the keyboard. The French pianist was surprisingly forthright and brusque, especially compared with Capuçon’s natural elegance and Batiashvili’s purity of line.

Gautier Capuçon
© Catherine Pluchart

Thibaudet’s languid, aching introduction to Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor immediately switched the mood. This was a truly classy account of a work whose essence is difficult to pin down, like the aroma of an elegant perfume that wafts past and then evaporates almost instantly. What impressed most was the perfect balance between the three, Capuçon’s rich walnut tone, Batiashvili’s leaner, lyrical sweetness and Thibaudet’s lightly pedalled luminosity. The first movement segued easily from Basque rhythms to moments of reflection, while the complexity and overlapping time signatures required in the scherzo-like Pantoum were pin-sharp, but delivered with deceptively easy lightness of touch.

After sepulchral murmurs in the piano’s bass, Capuçon intoned the long-breathed cello lines with grainy solemnity, paving the way for Batiashvili’s lyrical response. Ravel fastidious markings mean he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve easily and the sense of noble restraint here was touching, a gentle watercolour rather than bold oils on canvas. The finale is a miniature tour de force though, birdlike whistling arpeggio harmonics on the violin and double-stopped trills on the cello. Not to be outdone, Batiashvili’s trills were long and even. Thibaudet, finally let off the leash, threw himself into the demonstrative coda with Gallic panache.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
© Andrew Eccles

Felix Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Trio was completed in 1845, just a year after his famous Violin Concerto in E minor. For a chamber work, it has an almost symphonic feel at times and the Batiashvili–Capuçon–Thibaudet trio successfully balanced muscular energy with honeyed tone, donning Mendelssohn’s earnest colours as if wearing a second skin – lithe, alert and rhythmically strong. The Andante espressivo had an easy flow while the elfen skitter to the scherzo was reminiscent of the fairyland of the composer’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, violin and cello dancing on the most delicate of cobwebs. The finale had a carefree quality, an outpouring of sheer joy.

A pair of Russian encores followed: just the right amount of romantic sighing in a transcription of Tchaikovsky’s song None but the lonely heart, and Shostakovich in acidic mode, the Allegro con brio from his (much later) Second Trio, played full of exuberance.