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Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev & Wallfisch

Park Lane Group Monday Platform

Purcell Room 28 April 2008

This thought-provoking PLG concert adopted the PLGYA format as in their double cast January concerts, save that the artists are not restricted to contemporary music in this series. In this case we heard a premiere by Benjamin, the young composing member of the Wallfisch dynasty, a short two movement piece with an intriguing title, if little beyond that. The PLG notes are largely made up of CVs which serve to boost the artists and have little to tell about the music.

I wonder if Benjamin Wallfisch hasn't had too many composition teachers? His Syzygy did allow the trio to show their paces, with good balance and more transparent voicing by Jan Rautio at the piano than Simon Lane's for Katie Stillman.

The Rautio Trio specialises in British contemporary music, but might with advantage look at the scene a little further away; q.v. a special CD of Irish piano trios which claims, not without fair justification, to have reinvented the piano trio for the 21st Century.

Simon Lane's heavy handed approach in Op. 96 seemed determined to remind us that Beethoven's violin sonatas are described in earlier times as Sonatas for Piano and Violin. Katie Stillman's intonation was insecure at first and she did not find her best form until the slow movement. I wondered (not for the first time) about the suitability of this "deeply intimate work" (KS), one of my imperishable favourites, as a concert starter.

Perhaps things will sound different on the recording made during the concert, but for me it was a curiousy lack-lustre Op 96. But the duo came into their own after the interval with a compelling account of Prokofiev's flute sonata, well justifying its annexation for her instrument in Oistrakh's arrangement.

The highlight of the joint recital was however a superbly thought out and achieved account of the last of Brahms' piano trios, often before classified as my personal unfavourite of the three. They played together as an established group, and with Jane Gordon bringing a welcome splash of colour into the evening's conventional black. It's really time for a rethink of concert gear, given that very few of the mainly younger audience came dressed at all formally. Many of them appeared rather to be supporters of one or the other ensemble - to the extent that a few went out during certain items, whilst others came back for the Brahms after taking a prolonged interval... That roused considerable enthusiasm at the end.

The PLG format often affords the extra interest to compare two pianists on the same piano in the same concert. Jan Rautio excelled in his clarifying of Brahms' often dense textures, and his trio played as one; no doubt after long preparation. I found myself thinking that one really needs four musicians for a duo sonata and five for a piano trio; that numbering includes a silent listener plus the page-turner, who is of course badly placed to advise on balance or to represent how the playing sounds in the auditorium.

Another oddity came to mind, the difficulty for eye contact between pianist and strings with the usual platform placement, leaving rapport and ensemble to intuitive feeling between the chamber music players. That (as illustrated by appearances of the Barbirolli String Quartet) is one reason why the string quartet, in which each player can see the other three and make musical conversation as in real life, will probably always remain our favourite chamber combination.

Peter Grahame Woolf