Leopold String Trio – 6

Passacaglia and Fugue
String Trio in B flat, D581
Bach arr. Dmitri Sitkovetsky
Goldberg Variations, BWV908

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

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 11 November, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Leopold String Trio has made a series of impressive recordings for Hyperion of works from Mozart to Schoenberg. This is an ensemble with a mission – to re-ignite the public’s interest in the string trio repertoire. Long seen as a poor relation to the mighty string quartet, this concert made a real statement about the integrity of the string trio genre.

Hans Krása was one of the Czech-Jewish composers held at the Nazi’s ‘show camp’ of Terezín (Theresienstadt), along with Viktor Ullman, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein. The work that launched this concert, the Passacaglia and Fugue, was actually the last piece that Krása penned. It is a quite remarkable composition, from the emaciated, desolate Passacaglia theme through the anguished harmonies (sometimes really quite uncomfortable to experience) to the rather jocular Fugue. Performance-wise it was clear that this is an ensemble of three equally impressive musicians.

To follow this with Schubert’s B flat Trio was inspired programming. The bright beginning was like a breath of fresh air. Any clouds that appeared were merely transitory; the first movement had a real ease of expression (from Schubert) and real ease of execution (from the Leopold Trio). The elegance and grace of the Andante and the hyper-civility of the Minuet (precious little rusticity here!) led to the superb chamber music of the finale. This was superbly crafted music rendered with a suave touch.

Finally for the first half, more Krása. Tanec (Dance) was written shortly before the Passacaglia and Fugue. This amazing piece is a strange and fascinating mix of Philip Glass pre-echo (obsessive repeated fragments) mixed in with shades of Dvořák.

The idea of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (conceived for harpsichord and now so familiar on the piano) arranged for string trio is an intriguing one. Violinist (and conductor) Dmitri Sitkovetsky, of course, has an insider’s knowledge of string technique and his 1984 arrangement is in fact remarkably effective. There are many delightful surprises here, not least the almost vibrato-less opening (bringing to mind a viol consort!). There are times when the textures are illuminated and clarified by the new medium (the throwing about of fragments between parts, some delicate violin tracery, the daringly bare Variation XXV), especially as the Leopold Trio seemed bent on highlighting the more modern aspects of Bach’s amazing thoughts. There was the occasional technical problem, but the overall impression was mightily impressive. A shame that the poignant return of the ‘Aria’ failed to make its full effect (on a keyboard it seems more memorable).

The Leopold Trio’s programming is inventive and thought-provoking. The next concerts these musicians give at the Wigmore Hall will be in March. Worth catching, methinks.

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