This was the third of four performances by the Vienna Piano Trio as Turner Sims Associate Artists this season. Their focus on 19th-century repertoire and, in particular, Schumann’s piano trios has formed an intriguing stylistic journey, placing the composer in the context of a developing tradition, framed here by Beethoven’s stand-alone Variations and Tchaikovsky’s single contribution to piano trio form. It is a notoriously difficult medium to write in, and the works presented here revealed a variety of compositional approaches, not least in Beethoven’s seldom-performed work which began the evening.

Vienna Piano Trio © Nancy Horowitz
Vienna Piano Trio
© Nancy Horowitz

The composer had first revealed himself to the public with three piano trios a few years after settling in Vienna in 1792 and within this first group he had shown a special interest, and no small degree of ingenuity, in variation form. Although the Variations in E flat major, Op.44 arrived in published form ten years later, it is thought that they might originate from the same period as his Op.1 works. What is indisputable in this expansive work is its wide emotional trajectory, brought to the fore in this compelling account. The Vienna Piano Trio fashioned an expressive performance that captured to full advantage Beethoven’s humour and melancholy (and much else between) enhancing the work’s invention and accumulating interest. With playing as sensitive as this and with well-judged dynamics throughout, it was a real pleasure to become acquainted with this rarity – more a musician’s piece perhaps, but one with many conversational qualities in which a group such as this can excel.

Schumann’s Piano Trio no. 3 in G minor is a darker, more strenuous work and stands apart from both its companions. Notwithstanding attempts to lighten the mood in the finale, its brooding, restless character finds little relief in the density of its sonorities. Perhaps that indicates why I found this work easier to admire than love. The first movement’s ardour came off well with each of the players integrating shared material with a keen ear for balance. But it was the more eventful and passionate inner workings of the two central movements that really caught the ear; a wonderful sensitivity and energy underpinned the mood swings of the slow movement, and accented rhythms and superb passage work from violinist David McCarroll galvanised the Scherzo. Only in the finale could the trio have been a little less earnest and explored more of the movement’s rustic qualities, as well as finding more of its humour.  

There is little if any humour in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor (1882), an elegiac work conceived in memory of his close friend and mentor Nikolai Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky himself disliked the piano trio configuration, claiming it “a torture for me to have to listen to”, but this did not prevent him from writing a large-scale masterpiece of symphonic proportions combining Romantic splendour and structural individuality – and, not least, requiring huge reserves of stamina. In this aspect the Vienna Piano Trio were outstanding and throughout the opening “Pezzo elegiaco” combined a smoothly blended balance with well-defined outlines. Matthias Gredler’s cello seduced early on, shaping its autumnal main theme with warmth and sensitivity, answered by McCarroll’s sweetly eloquent violin. Stefan Mendl responded with commanding pianism and animated its rhythmic dramas. If at times string tone quality curdled in the movement’s more assertive passages, gentle reminiscing was of beguiling subtlety and the whole intelligently shaped.

The second movement, an extended theme-and-variations (Tchaikovsky at his most brilliantly resourceful), was given vivid colouring, whether scintillating or grandiose and always with keen precision. The fugal variation might have been less heavy-handed but in the closing section the players mesmerised with beauty of tone and compassion. Overall, it was a superbly assured performance, characterful and affecting, and made nonsense of Eduard Hanslick’s reaction following its Vienna première, that the work “belongs to that category of suicidal compositions which kill themselves by their merciless length”.