Leopold String Trio – 7

Duo in B flat for Violin and Viola, K424
Largo and Fugue in E flat, BWV526/K404a(5)
Movement for string trio
Adagio and Fugue in G minor, BWV883/K404a(2)
String Trio, Op.20
Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op.25

Leopold String Trio [Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) & Kate Gould (cello)]

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 9 March, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Leopold Trio was founded in 1991. “The Series” is a three-year cycle of 12 concerts at Wigmore Hall and Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton. It consists of six pairs of themed recitals expressing the scope and versatility of the string trio repertoire. The seventh and eighth focus on Vienna, and this concert was also Isabelle van Keulen’s first public appearance (replacing Marianne Thorsen) as a member of the Leopold Trio.

As a whole, the concert gave the trio a splendid opportunity to display three distinct styles of string-instrument playing the ‘authenticity’ of the late eighteenth century, owing much understanding of Leopold Mozart’s treatise on violin playing, the full romantic agitation of Brahms’s expansive, mid-nineteenth-century quasi-symphony and Webern’s terse, almost perfunctory pointillism.

Mozart’s two duos for violin and viola were composed, it is said, to assist Michael Haydn complete a commission for six such, Haydn being unwell. Mozart’s contributions outshine those of Haydn. The viola, favoured by Mozart so often elsewhere, has the lesser role. Even so, the richness of the viola’s tone is evident. This performance sounded thin and inhibited, as if Isabelle van Keulen and Lawrence Power were attempting to reproduce an ‘authentic’ style on modern instruments – but walking on eggshells.

The two arrangements from J. S. Bach fared rather better. Adding the cello, even if as no more than a ground bass, gave the ensemble more richness. The contrapuntal lines fell more comfortably into the players’ hands – and gave a comfortable, reassuring impression of how domestic music-making may have sounded in the late 1700s.

By contrast, Webern came over to the manner born. The relief at being free to play in a modern style was manifest – and the musicians’ delight in making clear, brief and pointed use of a wide range of their instruments’ capabilities. We ran the gamut of fully bowed lyricism, abundant though isolated pizzicatos, harmonics galore and even the sound of wood on strings. In just over ten minutes, we went through what seemed to be a lifetime’s experience of shimmering sonorities and agile rhythms – with all the seriousness of gazing at a flea circus through a magnifying glass.

The First of Brahms’s piano quartets gave us the distinguished assistance of Marc-André Hamelin – a robust and magisterial player of high romance. His enjoyable, authoritative playing gave a sensitive gravitas to proceedings – and a sense of all this wild richness and impassioned exuberance having nevertheless a dignified, classical underpinning. This was piano-playing and ensemble-playing of a high order.

It was also fascinating to hear the Leopold players digging their bow-hairs into the strings of their instruments and revelling in the making of glorious, thick, resonant, opaque sound. This was no namby-pamby Brahms – constrained in the cause of lucidity and acceptability. The playing, and the piece, had a tremendous, demanding gusto, amounting at times to an elevated, thrusting incoherence that swept everything before it. This, may I say, was authentic Brahms in a concert committed to demonstrating various styles of authenticity. The work’s finale was a riotous, stirring party-piece. The musicians played themselves out in a blaze of glory – in a Hungarian dance, brusque, hectic and stamping.

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