It often happens that three excellent musicians – a violinist, a cellist and a pianist – primarily following their solo careers around the world, will appear together and perform piano trio concerts with some regularity. Such recitals can be memorable but, despite the individual artistry of the members, seldom radiate the cohesion of a professional chamber ensemble that works together month after month, year after year. In part due to the repertoire, which is terrific but considerably smaller than that of string quartets, there are far fewer professional piano trios on the international circuit.

Trio Dali © Felix Broede
Trio Dali
© Felix Broede

The choice of repertoire for Trio Dali’s second programme on their current Australian tour was excellent. The members of the Trio are almost as young as Felix Mendelssohn was when he composed his Piano Trio no. 2 in C minor, Op.66, the opening number of the concert. While the key of C minor habitually carried a sombre, even tragic atmosphere for Mozart or Beethoven a few decades earlier, none of that remains for the eternally youthful Mendelssohn (who wrote this composition, tragically, barely two years before his death). Similarly to his first and better known D minor Trio, this work is overflowing with passion and tuneful melodies. The three musicians reacted to the brilliance of the C minor trio differently. I very much enjoyed the omnipresent buoyant vigour of pianist Amandine Savary, and indeed, the first movement was fiery as directed by the composer (con fuoco). Her rapid passages came, however, at the expense of covering the combined sound of violinist Jack Liebeck and cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca occasionally, particularly in the two fast movements of the trio. The string players performed in a unified, noble and elegant style, greatly assisted by their splendid instruments. Ideally though, Mendelssohn’s music needs more daring spontaneity. In musical terms, I would have enjoyed stronger sound and in general, a more assertive contribution from the violin and cello, helped perhaps with the occasional tasteful slide between notes (a characteristic tool for this musical era, called portamento).

British composer, Roger Smalley, had lived four decades of his life until his death last year in Australia and many think of him as a local composer. His Piano Trio (1991) is committed to traditional forms, and combines a clear structure with a musical language of his own era. It is rarely performed and it was a pleasure to hear. Its first movement challenges the string players with numerous double stops (the somewhat hazy intonation of a few of them was the only blemish in a technically superb performance) and the audience with unique harmonies, which were, however, never far from our customary tonal system. The Scherzo reminded me of Shostakovich’s bitterly jaw-gnashing movements in the same genre; it was strong in character and highly enjoyable. The Passacaglia took the listener even further into a dark and threatening world, only to be resolved by the high harmonics of the string instruments and the ethereal finish of arpeggiated tonal chords on the piano.

One of the last works Franz Schubert ever composed, the monumental Piano Trio in B flat major, D898 filled the second half of the concert and it was an impressive, thoroughly well-prepared performance. To me, though, it lacked the surprises so elementary to the spirit of this work. Schubert prescribes accents in this trio with abundance (for example, there are eight accents in first four bars of the slow movement). The execution of these accents sounded uncharacteristically uniform and generally tame; highlighting certain notes with unusual emphasis (as suggested in the score) would have served their intended purpose better. The self-assured joie de vivre of the first movement sounded thus ordinary rather than ecstatic, and the finale’s cheekiness –  not at all uncommon in Schubert’s music – also seemed to be taken for granted. On the other hand, the heart-wrenching theme of the second movement set the mood for endless nostalgic feelings and subdued yearning.

In the extremely competitive world of professional chamber music ensembles, the technically impeccable execution of any work in the repertoire is a fundamental precondition. Trio Dali fulfilled this in an exemplary fashion; however, their perfect ensemble playing, the never-failing attention to detail and each other, the arduous work to maintain phenomenal concentration and technical standards at every performance can come at the price of losing some of one’s youthful exuberance, the newly found wonderment of the beauty of any given work at every single occasion and the spontaneous joy of playing together. This ensemble is young, strong and talented and I sincerely hope that on the strength of their playing, they might take more musical risks in the future, even if it costs the occasional slip of ensemble or a less than perfectly played passage.