Alina Ibragimova, Alban Gerhardt & Steven Osborne at Wigmore Hall – Schubert’s Piano Trios

Piano Trio in B flat, D898
Piano Trio in E flat, D929

Alina Ibragimova (violin), Alban Gerhardt (cello) & Steven Osborne (piano)

Reviewed by: Malcolm Miller

Reviewed: 31 January, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Alban Gerhardt. Photograph: albangerhardt.comThree outstanding young soloists performing Schubert’s great piano trios to a packed Wigmore Hall audience was a wonderful way in to commemorate the composer’s birth on this day, 214 years ago. Alina Ibragimova, Alban Gerhardt and Steven Osborne’s fresh, unsentimental and even unvarnished approach to these pieces allowed Schubert’s genius to emerge with poetry, tonal translucence and drama. It appeared to be the first time these musicians had come together as a trio, the duo of Gerhardt and Osborne having flourished over several years, and Ibragimova here adding her purity of timbre, flowering in long lyrical lines into a more-radiant vibrancy. Gerhardt’s cello tone was resilient and variegated, his phrasing unsentimental and well-meshed with Steven Osborne’s phenomenal pianism, balancing pearl-like passagework with characterful projection of even the most delicate accompaniments. If this threesome still has room to grow as an ensemble, their playing-together already began to gel by the slow movement of D898 with its heart warming string duets, while by the end of the evening their combination was ravishing.

There was much to admire in precision, lucidity, and attention to fine dynamic gradations. At times a slight dryness through under-pedalling and sparing use of vibrato seemed to evoke ‘authentic’ performance, and one missed an element of romantic mystery, of caressing rubato or gutsy articulation; yet the musicians were alert to the most subtle nuances, and projected with virtuosity Schubert’s most characteristic effects, such as the cello’s yearning second subject in the first movement of the B flat work, which Gerhardt shaped expressively, or the dramatic pauses at the end of the exposition. Osborne’s dazzling dexterity drew glistening sounds in the many octave patterns, while the strings drew beguiling colours in the glorious themes of the slow movement, and much drama was invested into the contrasts within the scherzo movements, and the more extended rhetoric of the rondo finales.

Alina Ibragimova. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgIn the bristling first movement of D929 the clarity of inner voices of Schubert’s counterpoint was compelling, and the delicate repeated-note ideas of the second subject were playfully pointed and shared between the players. Here the development radiated drama, the piano arpeggios rippling like sugar-coating on the finely traced string lines, veering round unexpected turnings. The musicians’ gripping playing, always responsive to the architecture of the piece, underscored effects like the return to the major/minor second subject. I would take issue with their rather fast tempo in the Andante con moto: ‘con moto’, yes, but also Andante; this tripping momentum detracted from the music’s poignant pathos, yet on the plus side it afforded Gerhardt broad phrasing which was eloquently developed in duet and dialogue. Further limpid canons flowed in the scherzo and more forthright trio, while the finale was a zestful tour de force, the cyclic reminiscences and modulatory twists and turns adroitly handled to the very last.

The encore, Schubert’s Notturno (D897), was in many ways the highpoint as by now the artists relaxed into the luxuriant richness and compassion of Schubert’s melody in thirds, so reminiscent of the String Quintet, three artists singing as one. It formed an exhilarating bonus and whetted one’s appetite for their forthcoming Hyperion recording of these ever-inspiring masterworks.

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