Max’s Voyage to Fair Isle – 8 Feb

Trio in B flat, Op.11
Trio in E flat, Op.70/2
Variations in E flat, Op.44
Maxwell Davies
Piano Trio Voyage to Fair Isle [UK premiere]

Grieg Trio
[Vebjørn Anvik (piano), Sølve Sigerland (violin) & Ellen Margrete Flesjø (cello)]

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 February, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

In the third of four Wigmore recitals embracing Beethoven’s piano trio literature and including contemporary pieces, the Grieg Trio didn’t quite live up to its reputation in either Op.11 or the Variations, the opening works. The former was originally conceived for clarinet and is less jaunty with violin. The pianist probed the music while his string colleagues were not quite settled. Although there was some expressive opening-out in the slow movement, albeit the collective tone was too sonorous, honeyed even, the Finale variations (on a cheeky operatic tune) proved rather strait-laced. Beethoven inhibited loses a significant part of his character. The Variations, Op.44 never quite leapt from the page – the violinist was shy of virtuoso staccatos (much happier with long lines) and the sensitive cellist was too reticent. The pianist, the character of the group, made more of opportunities.

All was well with the E flat trio (the companion to the ’Ghost’) – a lovely performance of lovely music to conclude the concert in upbeat mood, Beethoven expanding on Haydn, richly lyrical, gentle and witty. The players responded graciously to Beethoven’s expansiveness, and while the cellist could have been more assertive, the three musicians’ interplay and delight in the music was infectious and left no doubt that the E flat trio is a good-natured masterpiece.

Peter Maxwell Davies’s Piano Trio, completed last September and already played in Norway and Germany, thus transferring the advertised ’world premiere’ claim, is, as the composer said in his spoken introduction, “less weighty” than other works of his. He mentioned the way Beethoven transforms folk material in his ’Pastoral’ piano sonata (Op.28). Max is similarly concerned with “local dance music” in the ’Allegro’ although this is none too easy to detect (on a first hearing). If a Beethoven sonata is analogous then it’s more the ’Hammerklavier’ or Op.111.

Plainsong is part and parcel of Max’s creativity also, a single example runs throughout this 20-minute work, as does the invoking of his Orkney home; the initially strings-only introduction suggests grey monumentality. Not that this is a difficult work; indeed it was inspired by an uplifting trip the composer made to nearby Fair Isle. An (amended) sonata-form construction [slow intro – allegro – slow development – scherzo – delayed recapitulation – full-circle close] finds material continually metamorphosed. Interceding two-thirds through are original Max creations, soundalike folk-tunes (a fast one for violin, a slow one for cello) that display his intrinsic derivation of indigenous music. These melodies, simply stated, are integral to this rigorous piece. Voyage to Fair Isle concludes to a quietly satisfied resolution. I imagine piano trio ensembles will be keen to give it an outing.

  • Wigmore Hall
  • Beethoven Plus IV is on 22 March
  • Peter Maxwell Davies
  • The Grieg Trio is recording Beethoven’s trios for SIMAX (distributed by Chandos). PSC 1165 includes Op.1/3 and the Op.121a Variations, together with Jouni Kaipainen’s Trio III

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