Only a few days ago, the newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made history and provoked frenzied headlines by forming his cabinet with an equal number of men and women. On their Monday concert in Sydney, the Eggner Trio achieved an even more impressive proportion (although it did not receive quite the same interest from the international press) by performing music by one male and two female composers – certainly a first amongst the concerts I ever attended.

© Eggner Trio
© Eggner Trio

The Austrian trio has been a favourite with local audiences ever since it won several major prizes at the 2003 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. Currently on their fifth visit to Australia, the three brothers – Georg (violin), Florian (cello) and Christoph Eggner (piano) – played piano trios composed some hundred years apart by Clara Schumann and Dulcie Holland in the first half of the concert, followed by the first Piano Trio by Johannes Brahms after the interval.

Clara Schumann (surely a finalist for the coveted albeit imaginary title of “most devoted musician wife of a major composer” along with Anna Magdalena Bach) penned her sole contribution to chamber music, the Piano Trio in G minor in 1846. It is an easily lovable work, composed with passion and empathy. Stylistically, it professes its own fresh voice, even if it bows, almost inevitably, to that of her husband Robert. One striking characteristic of her writing is the dominance of the violin part and the somewhat lesser role of the cello part. Uncommonly in the mid-19th century, in this Trio the cello tends to double the other instruments’ voices much of the time (the bass of the piano part, or the violin melody an octave lower), which makes its occasional solo tunes shine all the more.

And shine those cello melodies did. Florian Eggner played them with excellent technique and a strikingly warm tone with only a minor distracting characteristic: his vibrato curiously stopped in the middle of a melody for a few notes occasionally, and I am quite certain that this wasn’t for artistic effect. His impeccable intonation was matched by that of his brother, Georg, who carried the responsibility of introducing many of the themes effortlessly.

The Australian composer Dulcie Holland’s Piano Trio was composed in 1944, even though it had to wait almost 50 years for its première. Its three movements are similar in tempo, if diverse in character. The work, pleasantly conventional in its tone and structure, begins with an extensive unison theme in the piano which is followed later by several similar unisons by the string players, sporadically reminiscent of Ravel’s writing in his Piano Trio. As part of Musica Viva’s efforts to promote chamber music by Australian composers, this work here received a professional performance for an open minded audience – a privilege many other, lesser known composers would cherish.

The Eggners’ focus and supreme preparation continued to be evident in the final item, Brahms’ much loved Piano Trio in B major, op 8. That this will be a confident and brilliantly executed performance, was a forgone conclusion right from the first delicate B major chord in the piano part. The three brothers’ refined playing all but guaranteed a memorable experience for those members of the audience who are not familiar with this master piece. The question in such a situation is whether the experienced concertgoers will be equally convinced: those who lovingly keep their favourite historical recordings on LPs and CDs, who have heard this work several times in live performances and who might listen to this music repeatedly.

The question is not a simple one to answer. It was mostly during the first movement of this trio where the near flawless execution left me wanting a slightly different artistic experience, hoping to witness signs of heroic efforts, a (victorious) struggle with the material, and audial, even visual evidence of passion. Experimenting with slightly new musical ideas or something out of the ordinary might have risked a slight imperfection here and there, but would have created a more real encounter with the Eggners’ artistry and this phenomenal masterpiece.

Following this, the Scherzo was crisp and delicate, spiced with cheeky off-beat accents, its middle section grandiose in contrast. This movement seemed to evaporate with an elegant, crystal clear, long and unvibrated final F sharp in the strings – the same note and tone that the pianist used to open the slow movement’s perfectly balanced chorale. Christoph Eggner excelled throughout the night: while in Romantic trios the piano part can easily sound magnificent at the price of being simply too loud, his well-judged playing was never in danger of covering the sound of his brothers. Whether in this forlorn chorale or in the last movement’s nimble triplet runs, he never lost sight of the importance of the combined sound.

It was a polished performance, finished by a light-hearted encore, the Scherzo movement from Antonín Dvořák’s G minor Trio.

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