Florestan Trio – 1

Piano Trio in B flat, Op.21
Piano Trio
Piano Trio in E flat, D929

Florestan Trio [Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin) & Richard Lester (cello)]

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 13 January, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This first instalment of what is essentially a Czech weekend from the Florestan Trio – two Dvořák pieces, one by Martinů and one by the contemporary Czech composer Petr Eben – was shrewdly leavened by the inclusion of the grander of Schubert’s two piano trios, ensuring a full house with standing room only.

Dvořák’s B flat Piano Trio is a work of real magic – its very opening a moment of purest frisson – and it deserves to be much better known. The Florestans’ take on it was rather gentle and none the worse for that. This was colloquial playing from a partnership of equals – no individual player hogging the limelight – and nothing overstated. Ideally we could have done with the first movement repeat and a slightly more lilting second subject, but the second movement, taken quite slowly, reached a rapturous climax and its very ending was mesmerising. The whole performance was capped by an exuberant finale.

Petr Eben (born 1929) is one of today’s leading Czech composers, an organist and a teacher, who worked briefly at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in the late 1970s. In 1990 he became Professor of composition at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague as well as President of the Prague Spring Festival. His Trio starts from the premise that – instruments having changed since the days of the great classical chamber works and pianos have become much more powerful – his work would exploit the polarity between the instruments rather than any congruence, frequently pitting piano against the strings. To quote the composer: “Rather than a trio, this is a cycle for string duo and piano.”

In the opening movement, ‘Drammatico’, abrupt utterances on the piano, fragmentary in the style of Janáček, are pitted against string unisons, rather like three people all talking loudly but not taking in what the others are saying. The Andante con expressione is lyrical and sustained, its central section like a distant echo of the Fugue from Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, bleak music which ultimately fades into the distance, whilst the Lento is reminiscent of a hieratic procession. By contrast, in the finale, marked Agitato, the dance is never far away … but it is an angular, angry, loping sort of dance, full of syncopation. This is well-written and accessible music, eclectic maybe, but well worth hearing and it received a highly committed performance.

With the Schubert we were back on quintessential Florestan territory (both Piano Trios very successfully for Hyperion – CDA67273, and, for D929, including the original version of the finale, CDA67347). These musicians’ many merits in this music can be summarised as follows; in the first place, having now played it so many times together, there is a clear, shared conception of the work and in the second they never overpower the music or pressure it. Tensions are allowed to build naturally and nothing is overstated; and there is a real sense of where the significant moments lie and also of those quintessentially Schubertian switches of direction where a key-change will open up a whole new landscape or where a pause is momentarily underlined in order for it to make its full impact. Hugely stylish and deeply satisfying.

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