Alongside two other highly accomplished players, Isabelle Faust transformed the Kleine Saal at Zurich’s Tonhalle into a feast of Romantic and modern musical fare. Along with Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov, she recently took the stage on the eve of Sechseläuten − the city’s annual guilds celebration – and the Zurich audience was well disposed to hearing great dashes of colour and fanfare among the pieces played.

Isabelle Faust © Detlev Schneider
Isabelle Faust
© Detlev Schneider
While each one of these three musicians enjoys a solo career, the programme notes affirmed that chamber music is just as vital to their repertoire. According to the cellist, each one of the three brings individual musical insights and experience to the trio, and to look “at the same work from the three different perspectives” is only advantageous to any performance. For the listener, it’s the ease with which the musicians cue one another and the calibrated body of sound they achieve that sets them apart as a truly remarkable configuration.

Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor was the first of the evening’s offerings. A short, sparkling piano flourish began the piece, and the piano continued throughout the first movement to return the resonance and dialogue shared by the two other instruments. The line of the violin moved from singsong to majestic in a heartbeat, Faust’s fine “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius quickly establishing itself as a queen among instruments. Faust played with a muscular vigour that verged on the ferocious, alternating with her sound that was brocaded thick satin.

Given that the piece was composed when Schumann was suffering mental illness, the gamut of emotions was not unexpected. The second movement is almost a foot race, one marked by an excitable parry among all three players. As the cello passed on the theme to the violin demonstrably at the start, Queyras visibly humoured Faust with an expression of, “Now what do you think of that”? It was easy to join in the animated dialogue, making the connection to the players implicit. The third and fourth movements, first a lament that gave way to the lyrical, then a vigorous Presto that was marked by the alternating sense of swell and diminish, gave the piano a chance to light up like a firecracker – all this with an unparalleled ease that made the 30-minute piece infectious.

Since Isabelle Faust is an avid proponent of new music and has premiered works by, among others, Olivier Messiaen, Werner Egk and Jörg Widmann (the Tonhalle’s current Composer in Residence), I was ready to be challenged by something radically different next. But Salvatore Sciarrino’s Piano Trio no. 2 has a place apart even among works in the most modern genre. It begins with the buzzing of the strings, moving on in minimalist strain to recall the chirping of migrating birds, a party balloon with its air running out, the whistling of wind over an exposed rock face. In short, it was a fairly ungainly and mysterious body of sound that was chock full of the unexpected. The piano, after long periods of silence, comes out of retreat with explosive clashes, shaking up the vibrations of the strings and vying for presence that far outweighs their resonance. For me, there was also an element of horror in the otherworldly hymn and unpredictable direction the work would take. It demanded such rapt concentration on the part of the musicians that for its 12-minute duration, their eyes never once left the score. Nevertheless, the journey into “Neuland” stretched the imagination in a way that only an abstract vision can do, and I was thrilled to have been able to hear it.

Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio no. 1 in B flat major − dating from the very last year of the composer’s life − was the last of the works performed. After a muscular first movement, and the lullaby that the score returns to again and again, I realized that Isabelle Faust is just as much a sculptor as she is a musician. Moving from her core, her body taking as much physical exercise as one might have in a Pilates class, she moulded a silver sound in exchange with the piano and cello that was both visceral and highly intelligent. At the beginning of the last movement, she mesmerized the listeners with repeats that each time took on different colour and pulp. But for me, it was the glorious second movement – perhaps my favourite among any of Schubert's trios – that showed a perfect balance of restraint and dynamism, and when the shining melody came around again, it was a welcome and much treasured gift. 

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