Variations on ‘Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu’, Op.121a
Piano Trio in E flat, Op.1/1
Piano Trio in B flat, Op.97 (Archduke)
Florestan Trio [Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin) & Richard Lester (cello)]
Reviewed by: Tully Potter
Reviewed: 13 January, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
There was a special undercurrent of warmth in the applause that greeted the members of the Florestan Trio each time they appeared on the Wigmore Hall platform – for this was their last recital together – and you did not need the standing ovation at the end to tell you that people will miss them.
To my ears this Beethoven recital, winding up a three-recital cycle of his piano trios as well as the Florestan’s existence, offered the usual mixture: neat, indeed almost obsessively neat, pianism offset by ill-matched string playing often disturbingly dead in tone; moments of quality and illumination such as only first-rate musicians can provide, interspersed with moments of sheer puzzlement for this particular listener.
The slow introduction to the ‘Kakadu’ Variations was nicely eloquent but the perky variation theme was very unfunny. Misha Donat describes this work as “one of Beethoven’s comic masterpieces” but as the Variations unfolded, I found myself having the same reaction as when I watch Ricky Gervais or read the Doonesbury strip. Rather than being amused, I was bemused. Some passages were positively po-faced. The disparity between Anthony Marwood’s violin and Richard Lester’s cello, emphasised when they each had their chances in the Variations, continued to be apparent all evening. Although both showed the deleterious effect that the influence of ‘period’ playing can have, especially in tone-starved pianissimos, Marwood used more vibrato than Lester.
Better was the interpretation of Beethoven’s first published Piano Trio, where the neatness predominated in a work which can take this approach. Much of it was delightful, the opening movement rhythmically alive, the Adagio cantabile expressive, the scherzo enjoyable and the Presto finale helter-skelter if a little rigid in places.
The ‘Archduke’ began rather disastrously, with Susan Tomes altering the note-values in the opening theme. Although the strings instantly corrected her, the movement as a whole was “full of heaviness”, to quote from Messiah, and with the piano lid open on the long stick, Tomes’s accompanying passages were sometimes too loud. Marwood was playing more freely by this time but Lester seemed to have gone into his shell. In fact Lester played the marvellous opening phrase in the scherzo with dusty tone and an offhand manner suggesting that he would rather be somewhere else. This entire movement, which can be magical both rhythmically and melodically, was unattractively dour. Fortunately all three artists found some concentration for the great slow movement and Lester’s tone even bloomed a few times. The finale was not the cheeriest I have heard but it went well, with some eruptive rhythm, and provoked a predictable storm of applause.
The musicians eventually responded with the gentle Allegretto from the second of the Opus 70 trios, perhaps the best playing, with loving phrasing, although Lester’s occasional open-string notes stuck out like sore thumbs. Not a great night in the concert hall, then, but certainly an event. And I wish the members of the Florestan Trio the best of luck as they expand their separate careers.