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Florestan & Barbican Piano Trios 10 & 11 January 2004

Florestan Trio Wigmore Hall 10 January
Beethoven Op 11; Smetana Op 15; Mendelssohn Op 49; Beethoven Wo. 39
Anthony Marwood; Richard Lester; Susan Tomes

Barbican Trio Conway Hall, London 11 January
Mozart K548; Schumann No 3 Op 110; Saint-Saens No 2 Op 92
Gaby Lester violin; Robert Max cello; James Kirby piano

Chamber music is alive and flourishing in London . After a week of hearing eager up-coming young musicians, restricted by the Park Lane Group to contemporary music, a weekend listening to two well established piano trios on successive evenings, separated by a piano quartet playing 'the World's first piano concertos', took us into other realms.

The Florestan Trio is the relatively new successor to Susan Tomes' admired Domus Piano Quartet, and quickly established its pre-eminence at Wigmore Hall and on Hyperion CDs. A full house was delighted by a chance to hear Beethoven's Op 11 with Anthony Marwood deputising for the clarinet; a publisher's option to elevate sales, but not really convincing as a substitute. Attention therefore swung to the piano and to Susan Tomes' special way of driving things forward without always appearing to do so and relishing the virtuosic opportunities in the finale, based on a jaunty little tune from opera. Smetana's harrowing response to his young daughter's demise put the three players, Anthony Marwood, Richard Lester with Susan Tomes on equal terms and never fails to make a powerful impact, if little less idiomatic on this occasion than remembered from some Czech groups, notably Cenek Pavlík, Marek Jerie and Ivan Klanský of the Guaneri Trio Prague.

How would Mendelssohn fare after the interval? It was played with dash and determination, especially one of his delicious scherzi, but I found myself bored, not for the first time with the endless torrent of semiquavers, particularly in the finale. Misha Donat, who always ferrets out interesting titbits for his programme notes, tells us that Schumann encouraged Mendelssohn to vary his figurations. No, for me this is a trio that can rest in the century to which it belongs and is best not heard often. But no-one has so light a touch with the scherzo, so the other from Op 66 was the ideal encore.

Sunday evening chamber music at 6. 30 in Conway Hall is one of the longest running success stories in music in this country, nor, I dare say, can its record be capped in more than a few others? Under new management of the London Chamber Music Society, we no longer are invited to marvel at the mind-boggling statistics of these concerts, which I have been attending through over half a century, so I cannot confirm whether Saint Saens' Trio No 2, which I approached with some trepidation, was a novelty to the aficionados as it was to me?

I knew the Barbican Trio in its very earliest days, some twelve to fifteen years ago. Quite soon its membership settled with cellist Robert Max and pianist James Kirby; Gaby Lester, a very experienced orchestral leader, became their violinist a few years back. They are a formidable ensemble, with Kirby a fully equipped pianist (he played both Brahms concertos in Moscow recently) who makes light of difficulties and never seems to need to look at his hands.

Crisp articulation in Mozart showed their stylistic confidence, always alive, auguring well for the mountains to be tackled. Schumann's No 3 made a strong case for a place in the canon of chamber music masterpieces. It follows a path which is not formalised and circumscribed, with episodes of fantasy and outbursts of energy. Difficult to hold together its coherence, it has been featured less rarely recently; performances by the Florenstans in Cheltenham (they have recorded it on Hyperion CDA67175) and by the Trio Jean Paul in Lucerne last year and on CD, stick obstinately in the mind; the latter's CDs, coupling Schumann with Schumann-inspired Rihm trios, should be sought out (Ars Musici AM 1241-2).

But the revelation in this concert, and indeed of the whole weekend, was Saint-Saens, traditionally put down as 'the greatest composer who was not a genius' (can anyone identify that quote?). Robert Max introduced this mammoth five movement structure as a master work by one of music's 'greatest unsung geniuses' and the Barbican Trio's account of it left everyone exhilarated and few unpersuaded. The Barbican Trio has a fine Russian coupling of trios by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky on Guild GMCD 7242; I enjoyed the massive set of variations (no cuts!) far more than with several more 'starry' ensembles, and there is a recommendable CD of the two Saint-Saens trios by the Joachim Trio on Naxos 8550935.

At its best, and this evening was one such, three musicians in the right ambience (Conway Hall is acoustically unsurpassed in London , especially in the balcony) can satisfy equally as a full orchestra, and far more cost effectively!

Next concert: 18 January, 6.30 pm. Allegri Quartet & Martin Outram viola Haydn, String Quartet in 0 minor Opus 76 No.2 John Woolrich, The Death of King Renaud Mozart, String Quintet in C K575


© Peter Grahame Woolf