The Toronto Summer Music Festival’s opening concert made the audience very happy with a program of piano trios heavily weighted towards lamentation. Gabriel Fauré composed his Op. 120 trio in retirement while oppressed by old age, total deafness and bouts of bronchial pneumonia, but he makes his misery sing. Jean-Claude Pennetier’s piano throbs a wonderfully soft, long-breathed lyric passage that the strings imitate, weaving polyphonic windows for the piano to sparkle through. A flow of lyrical motifs mingle in elegant conversation of charming melodies, subdued rhythms and witty repartée. The mood throughout is equally elegiac and cheerful.

Roland Pidoux, cello; Régis Pasquier, violin; Jean-Claude Pennetier, piano © Guy Vivien
Roland Pidoux, cello; Régis Pasquier, violin; Jean-Claude Pennetier, piano
© Guy Vivien

A highlight of the central Andantino is the opening duet for Régis Pasquier’s violin and the cello of Roland Pidoux. Their harmonies flow like electric caramel against a counter-current of piano that emerges in a solo of evanescent beauty. The movement concludes in a collage of moods that varies from haunting to meditative to dark introspection and finally, a subtle, austere, repose.

The Finale is animated, mixing Gallic clarity, delicacy and fire, as the piano sings luminous among the shimmering octaval harmonies of the strings. A phrase, repeated several times, that sounds like Leoncavallo’s “Ridi Pagliaccio” distracts the mind until the ensemble dances Fauré’s movement thumpingly to the end of its time.

The Trio Pennetier Pasquier Pidoux totally earned the confidence of the audience in Koerner Hall with their Fauré. They followed with the Piano Trio in A minor by Fauré’s student Maurice Ravel, and it was, like the baby bear’s porridge, just right. Ravel wrote his work in August 1914, while he was seething with an “insane heroic rage” to fight the Kaiser’s army. I have never found any “tone poem”-style references to history in this music, which is an unequivocably delightful feast of Basque dances, Malaysian verse forms, Baroque structures and French neoclassical stylings that avoid German motivic development in favour of the more varied and fluid French style.

The opening movement, Modéré, floats poetically as a dream sequence, as much a tribute to the Trio PPP’s delicate touch as it is to Ravel’s signature language. Alternately rhythmic and lyrical, the space of this movement feels exotic and neo-pastoral. The scherzo is sprightly-go-lightly, glittering with pizzicato and delightful trilling and tremolos in the piano that keep virtuosity just under the radar so the delicious flavours of the music come through as simplicity. Desolation comes out momentarily in the third, the passacaglia with its jagged and sparse entwined lines of hollow harmonies. This movement, along with the gallows section of Gaspard de la nuit, is as close as Ravel gets to a descent into the underworld. The finale brings us squarely into the energy and turbulence of the modern urban world with sounds of a city – be it Gershwin’s New York, Weill’s Berlin, or the Paris of the Lost Generation. The whole sound of it is popular, refreshing, and now.

After intermission it was the 20-year-old Rachmaninov’s sprawling lament for his dead hero Tchaikovsky – his Elegiac Trio in D minor, Op. 9. The opening ostinato descending scale in the piano and the lament shared by the strings roll out an intensity that rises to the paroxysmal, declines, and rises again in thunder against heaven, subsiding, finally in self-soothing repetitions and a merciful fade-away. Throughout, one senses and is grateful for the classical restraint of the players. There are interesting manic and sardonic traces in the second movement, as well as feelings of holocaustic destruction. The Scherzo is tempestuous, offering a sense of release into popular sounding themes. The Finale is dark, minor, dissonant, with a remarkable piano solo that rolls out like a funeral cortège moving in a low, slow march towards the end.

It was a masterful performance and the audience was generous. The Trio Pennetier Paquier Pidoux responded with an sprightly encore from a Beethoven piano trio. This is a very auspicious opening for the festival, themed as “Paris la Belle Époque”.

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