The Vienna Piano Trio gave the final instalment of Brahms’ piano trios on Thursday evening and completed their first season as Turner Sims Associate Artists. Each of their three concerts placed Brahms as a focal point midway between works written for the medium during the 18th and 20th century and thus placed in context the tradition in which Brahms was working and provided insights on the piano trio’s development. It is a notoriously difficult medium to write in, and the works presented here revealed a variety of compositional approaches, not least in the genius of Haydn who began the evening.

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

Haydn’s Piano Trio in E, Hob XV/28 made clear from the outset that the piano was going to be the dominant instrument in an intriguing work that proved to be packed with invention, all the more striking from a composer in his 65th year. But this was music that crackled with wit and energy and its performance by the Vienna Piano Trio, so vividly persuasive, made one realise just how much there is still to learn from this composer. His late flowering is all the more extraordinary for the youthful vitality that surges through this trio and its companion works written for the London-based Therese Bartolozzi in 1797.

Stefan Mendl (piano) was a vital presence in this Trio for “Piano-Forte with an accompaniment for the Violin and Violincello”, revealing much sensitivity in an opening paragraph that outlined Haydn’s highly individual approach to trio sonorities. David McCarroll (violin) and Matthias Gredler (cello) were equally alert to their roles in the proceedings, either in supporting the piano or as protagonists. The Baroque-style Allegretto (with its walking bass in the manner of a passacaglia) was taut and, from the beginning, wonderfully mysterious.

It was Ravel next – with one of the best examples of a piano trio ever to have been written by a French composer. Some fine playing characterised this Piano Trio in A minor, notably in the tenderly hypnotic Modéré, with McCarroll (in more transparent passages) as a wonderfully sweet-toned and expressive violinist. If the emphasis here was on ardour, there was no lack of vigour in Pantoum, muscular and rhythmically assured. The passacaglia third movement – another walking bass pattern – drew attention to an intelligently-conceived programme and a magical final duo passage from muted violin and cello. If only McCarroll and Gredler had looked as if they were enjoying themselves. At the piano, Mendl, was certainly enthusiastic, so much so in the Finale that one could be forgiven for thinking this piano trio had morphed into a piano concerto. A Gallic spirit flickered only intermittently here.

Problems of balance disappeared in Frank Bridge’s Phantasie in C minor, a work charged with romantic intensity and stunningly rendered here. Soloistic opportunities were beautifully shaped and we heard the full extent of McCarroll’s rich tone in the work’s passionate main theme. Gredler’s cello (earlier not always audible) also caught the ear, his tenor register heard to good effect in Bridge’s soaring lines. The work indicated that British composers can also write piano trios of great craftsmanship.

This quality was readily apparent in Brahms’ dramatic Piano Trio no. 3 in C minor, Op.101, its intensity nicely caught by the Trio in a gripping and well-paced first movement. Crisp playing neatly dispatched the pizzicato writing in the second movement and eloquent phrasing concealed the irregular rhythmic structure of the Andante grazioso, its opening duo for violin and cello disarmingly simple and lovingly shaped. Syncopations were vigorously spiked in a finale where the Trio’s thrusting momentum ensured the movement’s dramatic sweep right up to its life-affirming conclusion. This was a rewarding evening with many great moments, but with some inconsistencies.