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The Barbican Piano Trio 20th Anniversary

Haydn Piano Trio in E flat minor HXV:31 Beethoven Piano Trio in D Op. 70 No. 1 'Ghost'
Taneyev Piano Quintet in G minor Op. 30

Barbican Piano Trio
Gabrielle Lester, Robert Max & James Kirby
with Mia Cooper (violin) James Boyd (viola)

Wigmore Hall Sunday 2 December 2007

The Barbican Trio's 20th anniversary year concerts at Wigmore Hall - their 2005 recording of Taneyev's Piano Trio and Piano Quartet earned a collection of enthusiastic reviews including 'crusading passion' (Gramophone), 'admirable, musical and thoughtful' (The Guardian), and 'immense intensity' (The Strad).

We looked forward to this concert with high expectations, having followed The Barbican Piano Trio since their early days (e.g. http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/reviews/liveevents/florestan_barbican.htm). One cannot live on one's past indefinitely, however, and this year's well attended London recital proved a great disappointment.

I had thought it important to take the opportunity to reconsider Taneyev's piano quintet which I'd previously disliked. But was no more persuaded by The Barbican Trio's advocacy of its worth than earlier with Mikail Pletnev, no less, at the piano. Robert Max, by way of trailer (as well as in the fulsome programme notes) insisted on its magnificence, invoking audience catching metaphors for the elaboration of Taneyev's melodies, likening them to spaghetti twisting on a spoon and the work as a whole as a beef hot pot, not spaghetti bolognaise, if you see what he means...?

Five years ago, during a Taneyev Festival, I wrote about this monster quintet: The 46 min Taneyev Piano Quintet (1910) - composed at the time of The Firebird and Scriabin's Prometheus - did not persuade me, once again, that this worthy, academic and backward-looking composer, who taught composition to the grandfather of the Festival's Artistic Director, Steven Isserlis, merits revival or our special attention. The quintet's material, subjected to elaborate contrapuntal development, is unmemorable and is often over-inflated, especially in the huge first movement (over a quarter of an hour long) and Taneyev's tendency towards massive perorations brought embarrassed smiles, albeit with an ovation at the end. The scherzo is worth rescuing as an encore (and was played again as such) and it benefited from Mikhail Pletnev's quicksilver pianism. That apart, the opportunity to hear this great pianist in the intimacy of the Wigmore Hall (which may have explained that evening being sold out) was largely wasted, despite enthusiastic advocacy for the quintet by all concerned.

It was given with determination at high voltage, with Kirby confidently underpinning the work of the strings, the vigour of the violist notable. As previously, I thought the scherzo worth being kept in mind, but the whole trio was a case of diminishing returns through a wearing three-quarters of an hour.

The first half was frankly dull; pieces from the trio's repertoire played as if on auto-pilot, not freshed up for this evening. Unwise for their programme note to the Ghost trio to guide listener responses, e.g. advising us that "in the extraordinary Largo hushed pianissimo" would sound "more unnerving than fortissimo" and major harmonies "more unsettling than minor ones". Not so last night! This wan Ghost made a stark contrast with the Beaux Arts farewell Archduke at Wigmore Hall last month.

These players tour internationally relentlessly (q.v. below - sorry, text unreadable, but you'll get the point !!) and also live extremely busy, complicated musical lives individually, so perhaps any available rehearsal time went on the Taneyev, which I guess they may be recording as a companion to their Dutton CD?

Their CDs (all of unusual repertoire) are excellent; of the two illustrated, I greatly preferred the delightful Lalo disc [ASV DCA 899] to that with the Taneyev trio and quartet. I wonder how often they are able to programme one of Lalo's three virtually unknown piano trios, or do concert promoters insist on standard repertoire to ensure audiences come?

Peter Grahame Woolf