Trio Jean Paul

Piano Trio in E minor, HXV:12
Piano Trio No.1 in B, Op.8 [Original Version]

Trio Jean Paul [Eckart Heiligers (piano), Ulf Schneider (violin) & Martin Löhr (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 12 February, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Trio Jean Paul is named after the novelist who was such an inspiration to Robert Schumann’s musical criticism, but it was Schumann’s close contemporary Brahms on whom the group concentrated for this lunchtime recital, recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 rather than being given the usual live feed.

Brahms’s B major Piano Trio has had a chequered history; its early version of 1854 was thoroughly revised 35 years later, with the perceived excesses trimmed by the composer and entire themes removed. For this concert Trio Jean Paul played the original, which is typical of early Brahms in its scale – a substantial forty-minutes plus.

The expansive structure of the first movement was immediately evident in the broadly arched phrases of the main theme, played passionately by the trio, who sensibly kept the piano one notch from a fully extended stick. Coupled with Eckart Heiliger’s sensitive touch this removed any problems of balance, the pianist keeping a clean sound even at the loudest of his fortissimos.

The string-playing was excellent too, impeccably tuned despite the challenging key, and Martin Löhr’s legato cello playing was one of many highlights of this opening movement. A soft yet affirmative return to the main theme was followed by a concentrated coda, building up to a weighty finish.

Almost a piece in its own right, the movement’s large expanse is necessarily followed by a lightly brushed scherzo, left relatively unaltered in the Revised Version. Its urgent figure is passed from cello to violin to piano and back, the strings joining in a charming duet at the heart of the trio section.

The finale becomes more problematic in the first version, though it includes a lyrical cello theme that references Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte”, beautifully played here by Löhr. Approaching this is an unusually structured third movement, with slow Adagio passages framing an unexpectedly stormy Allegro; here, the high pizzicato from Schneider was beautifully projected as Heiligers softly intoned the still theme.

A brief optimism in the tempestuous finale turns sour as it touches more and more on minor keys, thus Trio Jean Paul finished emphatically yet in comparative darkness. This finale, believe it or not, was marred by snoring in the quieter passages, which was by no means a reflection of the performance!

A circumspect Haydn piano trio preceded Brahms’s massive Romantic statement, though this offered many lighter moments in the effervescent finale. Heiliger’s clarity and lightness of touch were illuminating in the first movement, the more genial second set of themes performed with obvious enjoyment. The work’s emotional heart is found in the Andante, whose harmonic richness was suitably emphasised as it developed.

The major-minor swing of the finale anticipated the same harmonic tension in the Brahms, as did the overall mood of the piece, completing a most satisfying programme.

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