Standing proudly above a great lawn, looking for all the world like a Greek temple, the Pittville Pump Room offers a touch of Regency refinement. Three Greek statues on its roof depict Hippocrates, Asclepius (god of medicine) and Hygeia (goddess of soothing pain), reassurance to the paying customers that the spa waters within would do you good. After recent restoration of the pump, it is hoped that the mineral water will be available to drink again, but for now it’s chamber music that works its restorative powers at the venue. 

Gould Piano Trio
© Jake Morley

On the second day of the Cheltenham Music Festival, the Gould Piano Trio played a lovely late morning recital framed by two great works of French piano trio literature: Gabriel Fauré’s in D minor and Camille Saint-Säens’ in E minor. The trio was formed in 1987, although cellist Richard Lester was a recent recruit (2019), having devoted years to the now disbanded Florestan Trio. During the Fauré, it became obvious that there was little eye contact between the players… simply because their musical instincts are so closely aligned. It was as if they felt the music together, almost breathing as one organism. Lester’s cello and Lucy Gould’s violin are remarkably well matched, both having an oaken tone, particularly noticeable in Fauré’s mellow Andantino. Pianist Benjamin Frith rattled off virtuosic runs in the spirited finale.  

Saint-Säens' Second Piano Trio is chamber music on a grand scale, written in five movements, the outer ones being satisfyingly substantial. Gould floated her opening lines serenely, although Frith made heavy weather of the busy piano waves that needed more lightness. The second movement, a quirky minuet in 5/8, had grace and charm, while the central slow movement, with big leaps in violin and cello lines, evoked a wonderful sense of nostalgia. The solemn, sober finale hit the dynamic heights with some powerful playing. 

In between, came a world premiere by Andrew Chen and a set of variations by Beethoven. Chen’s brief work, titled ilk, lasted less time than it took to penetrate his programme note. It began with a warbling Messiaen-esque piano solo, Gould and Lester glued to their scores ready to disrupt proceedings with their pizzicatos. Bows were eventually permitted, with glissando effects and scurrying figures, but on first listening the short piece has an elusive, fragmentary quality. 

First appearances are deceptive in Beethoven’s Op.121a variations, the last of his piano trio works to be published, although it was composed much earlier. An austere opening seems to point to Ludwig in gruff mood, but once the theme arrives – a tune by Wenzel Müller called Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu (I am the Tailor Cockatoo) – it is almost comically trite. The variations that follow offered all three players chance to shine, Gould and Lester in florid solo variations with piano accompaniment, while Frith poured out Variation 6’s semidemiquavers as Gould and Lester sparred the off-beat strokes in fierce mock anger. But musical good humour was never far away – the best medicine when spa water isn’t on tap.

Mark’s press trip was funded by the Cheltenham Music Festival