FringeReview UK 2018
The English Piano Trio: Jane Faulkner, violin, Pal Banda cello, and Timothy Ravenscroft, piano play Haydn’s rare Trio No. 41 in E flat minor, and Beethoven’s No. 6 in E flat major Op 70/2.
The English Piano Trio’s one of the best-established British trios, as old as the Chapel Royal concerts themselves: twenty-seven years. Jane Faulkner, violin, Pal Banda cello, and pianist Timothy Ravenscroft play so completely as one that you simply relax into the music.
They champion core repertoire crossed with commissions: Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-96), Malcolm Lipkin, David Matthews, Cecilia McDowall, Joseph Phibbs. Or they unearth for instance the masterly Trio of Edward Bache – a British composer born the same year as Brahms and Borodin (1833) but dying of TB at twenty-five. They recently played the just-edited trio works of song-composer and poet Ivor Gurney. Their Naxos recording of Malcolm Arnold’s Trios won a Gramophone Award. Clearly the EPT enjoy an international profile.
We don’t normally get more than one or two of Haydn’s ground-breaking Piano Trios. The one in E flat minor HB XV/31 – numbered No. 41 – is a superb searching work bizarrely overlooked. But then this is the EPT all over. Though famed for its stratospherically high cello part in the second movement – a practical joke on an over-confident amateur – this is a deeply troubled work.
For a start E flat minor? Where on earth in the classical canon do you get a key like that? Dating from 1795-97 just after Haydn’s London years it’s light-decades from that public brilliance – and expansiveness – then characteristic of him. But there’s others like his 1792 F minor piano Variations on Mozart’s death that point a way. It’s a way any creative artist grooves themselves on a whim that channels all of a particular set of feelings.
The opening Andante cantabile sings but mournfully. It’s spacious and for two-thirds of its nine-minute length it explores the relative reaches of E Flat minor, and only opens out into a shrouded sunniness in its latter third returning emphatically to shadows. The concluding Allegro in E flat bursts from this with that high-wire joke all instruments follow, not without fascinating harmonic slips into radiant E major, anticipating Beethoven.
Beethoven in fact followed, his expansive Trio No. 6 in E flat Op 70/2. It’s not quite as well known as the Ghost Op 70/1 that preceded it, with its slow movement based on an aborted opera on Macbeth. But it’s the last before the final Archduke Trio Op 97, and overlooked simply because it hasn’t got a name. Composed in 1808, its serenity belies political peril and the death of patrons in battle. Vienna was to fall in May next year to Napoleon, and Haydn die that same month.
That opening’s pretty unusual. Poco sostenuto –Allegro, ma non troppo basically means a slow introduction like a late Haydn (and Beethoven) symphony then a fairly fast, massive development. It’s a world in twelve minutes, philosophical almost, a huge arc that refuses to hurry. It’s not so far from the world of the Archduke though not so firmly outlined: more experimental, more searching, more unstable.
The C major-and-minor Allegretto is memorably song-like, ardent and soaring. It functions as a sort of scherzo. You don’t expect it to ground itself. The piano part has a striding theme crossing the other instruments and then a dotted rhythm building tension and harmonic dissonance to a moment of intensity rather like the slow movement in the Ghost but quicker and different in atmosphere. It’s the minor sideslips that really make this one of Beethoven’s great trio movements.
There’s another Allegretto to follow ma non troppo so basically a bit slower. It’s in A flat and like a hymn, almost suggesting a rondo finale. The striking moment here is when the cello drags a line below this texture, sounding like a question mark, the way it does in the last moment of Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, virtually his last work. There’s still some filigree rapt playing, and the movement’s most magical when slow, with violin and cello effecting a three-note slow-down emphasising the middle note at double the length, with piano; then again the cello shades in. It’s the equal of the preceding movement.
We’re back in E flat major for the Allegro Finale which revs up from piano then violin to a more unclouded frolic between the three instruments – but there’s an immediate slow-down with a cello solo twisting like a piece of waste DNA; then an instrumental eddy, and sudden rally.
These performers blend in with each other but project too, so that though each takes up their part in the texture they’re never afraid to show individual timbre and exposed solo lines, which is naturally what you’d hope for. Consummate music-making. Definitive performances.