Leopold String Trio – 2

String Trio in B flat, D471
J. F. Brown
String Trio
String Trio
Piano Quartet No.2 in G minor, Op.45

Leopold String Trio [Marianne Thorsen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) & Kate Gould (cello)]

Pascal Rogé (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 November, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The second of the Leopold String Trio’s welcome new series, continuing in March, focussing on the music written for, and featuring, its respective medium brought out the expressive range of this difficult combination – not least the impressive String Trio (1996) by James Francis Brown. In two movements, the first is an intensive Allegro, whose alternately energetic and lyrical themes are not so much developed than intensified in this compressed two-part structure. The Variations that follow derive from an unassuming idea given at the outset, and duly functions both as a self-contained movement and also as scherzo, slow movement (the brooding third variation) and finale; the theme evolving in an engaging fashion over what seems to be as much a series of abstract character-studies as a set of variations per se.

The piece received a confident rendering from the Leopold Trio (who gave the premiere almost a decade ago), emphasising its range of expressive nuance as well as its thoughtful approach to long-range tonal connections which Brown has pursued in a sequence of finely-honed chamber works (not least the Violin Sonata, heard on the South Bank in 2003). It is music written very much with the string trio formation in mind – and, in a medium hardly cluttered with masterpieces, can fairly hold its own.

On this occasion, it was preceded by the mellifluous and understated Allegro which was all Schubert completed of his 1816 attempt, and followed by the String Trio that the 21-year-old Jean Françaix composed 117 years later. A composer whose name might almost have persuaded him to adopt his trademark urbanity, Françaix displays a keen wit in the brief but scintillating first movement and the queasy harmonic side-slips of the scherzo. The songful Andante is a gem, and if the finale feels at all undecided as to its true seriousness, the composer solves the problem with a coda that does not so much conclude matters as dismiss them out of hand – something well realised in this performance.

There could hardly be stronger contrast than with the Second Piano Quartet (1886) in which Fauré announced the arrival of his creative maturity. Unlike its predecessor, which can sound as if four distinct pieces are in search of a unifying form, Piano Quartet No.2 forms a coherent entity from start to finish – the first movement unfolding a powerful argument between conflicting keys (and hence emotions) which is intensified in the untypically harsh scherzo, then transcended in an Adagio whose ruminative regret underlies one of Fauré’s most perfect creations. Unlike in so much French chamber music of the period, the finale proves to be no mere rounding-off but a movement which sees the underlying tonal trajectory through to its satisfying and – in this instance – uninhibited culmination.

The playing of the Leopold Trio was everything one could wish for in ensemble unanimity and a grasp of the dark undercurrent that is the work’s most tangible quality. It helped to have a pianist of the calibre of Pascal Rogé, unsurpassed among current exponents of this repertoire – and one whose dovetailing into the often densely-woven string counterpoint was as skilful as was the impression of it being so effortless. A memorable performance – rounded off by a repeat (at least for those who were present the previous night) of the insouciant scherzo from the C minor Piano Quartet, and a persuasive conclusion to this first instalment of the Leopold’s odyssey through the highways and byways of the string trio.

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