Piano Trio No.2, Op.37 (Damage) [pre-concert event: world premiere]
Piano Trio in G minor, Op.17
Piano Trio in B flat, Op.97 (Archduke)
Trio No.2 (Movie Demons)
Piano Trio No.1 in D minor, Op.49
Trilogy [Mark Wilson (violin), Nick Allen (cello) & Neil Crossland (piano)]
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: 10 June, 2003
Venue: Purcell Room, London
The piano trio is one of the most discursive and conversational of musical forms. Less intense and usually more extrovert than the string quartet, but with more problematical issues of balance, it depends above all on the asymmetrical equality and interaction of the three players.
By these criteria, Trilogy is only a partial success. Its pianist, Neil Crossland, clearly has a stronger personality and musical identity than his colleagues, and drove piece after piece with rapid tempi and single-minded direction, leaving the strings to keep up. Crossland has excellent finger and wrist technique, and indefatigable energy. Although the group’s ensemble was generally good, it was rare that it formed either a true unity or a creative dialogue – indeed, the name ’Trilogy’, implying three separate parts, is a revealing one.
This was heard at its worst in Beethoven’s ’Archduke’, arguably the greatest work in this particular repertoire, an expansive and lyrical masterpiece, but here given a crammed and airless performance. The first movement, despite its ’Allegro moderato’ marking, was significantly faster than the norm. While this gave the long melodic lines a specious excitement, it abolished much sense of detail (for example the mordents in the bridge passages) and produced a forced, breathless effect.
There were fine moments in the remainder of the piece, most notably the magical piano entry of the first variation of the slow movement, but the overall effect was the same. Instead of wit, reflection and resolution as the characteristics of the three remaining movements, the whole resembled a relay race, with the melodic baton passed from instrument to instrument. At points, too, the violinist had serious problems of intonation, perhaps as a result of the tempi.
The same problems afflicted the Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, if to a lesser degree. These are pieces better suited to the combination of lightness and brio that characterise the group’s playing, but much was still lost. Neither Scherzo danced, the Schumann being especially leaden, while the undoubted exuberance and sparkle of Mendelssohn’s passagework were no substitute for the genuine musical insights of more considered articulation.
The most successful parts of the concert were the two contemporary pieces. Crossland’s exactitude and the Nick Allen’s composed cello tone were much to the fore. Rohan Stevenson’s Movie Demons showed the clear influence of his interests as a film and TV composer, and was based on the dramatic tension between the classical structure and conventions and the frustrated, fictional aspirations of the instruments as, for example, in baroque or jazz. The work received a performance of commitment and panache.
The core of Crossland’s own work, Damage, is its anguished, post-modern finale, a juxtaposition of string outcries and a fragmented re-interpretation of the Dies Irae, the anatomy of a tormented spirit. This movement was preceded by two others, both more formally conventional and less emotionally charged, reminiscent of Shostakovich and, at times, of late Romanticism.
Despite well-spoken introductions to these two pieces, it is a shame there were no programme notes, perhaps to elucidate the clear melodic connection between the Beethoven and Clara Schumann slow movements, or to explain the significance of the title in Crossland’s composition.
Even without the pre-concert piece, however, this concert was too long; Two Miniatures of Frank Bridge were played as encores. It is a common practice, especially by artists or ensembles showcasing their talents on the South Bank or in the Wigmore Hall, to offer lengthy, demanding programmes. While this allows admiration for the performers’ range and stamina, it also leads to audience fatigue and the danger of routine interpretations.