In autumn sunshine the campus at the University of Sussex was lovelier than ever, even if the traffic was snarled up as people tried to get to the stadium opposite. Despite the traffic the turnout for the concert seemed, without counting formally, to be at a record high, possibly because the Fournier Trio were to play two of the greatest piano trios in the repertoire.
Mendelssohn’s first trio (opus 49) is a work of unabashed joy. In the opening Allegro melodies flow one after the other, the mood changing from passionate to tender in just a few bars, then back to passionate, all joined together in one great flowing line. The Andante is more on the tender side, the Scherzo more mischievous, but the final Allegro assai appassionato is back to passion and joy. There was a gasp from the audience as the piece finished – a tribute to the expressive playing of the Trio. They matched Mendelssohn’s passion, not by playing particularly loudly nor by playing particularly fast, but by their intensity. I’ve heard the Florestan and Gould Trios play the piece, and both had their strengths, but neither seem to me to match the breathless excitement of this performance.
Turina’s trio No.2 was a good choice to follow the Mendelssohn. Although written almost 100 years later it didn’t seem to have advanced much in style, and it was considerably simpler to listen to, although not to play. It was a gentle romantic piece with a Spanish twist and calmed us down beautifully before the Beethoven.
Beethoven’s Archduke trio is a devil to play, not because it’s technically difficult, but because it keeps changing direction, as though he is constantly trying to wrong foot the players and the audience. The first movement opens with an expansive tune on the piano, then on violin then on cello. Whereas, for Mendelssohn, this would be just the start, after 20 bars Beethoven abandons it, and has the piano repeat a one-bar phrase of trills from the end of the original tune. There’s some delightful wandering about for 35 bars before Beethoven introduces a second theme, unrelated to the first. This lasts for 38 bars, before he’s off onto something new. And so it goes on. The moves between themes are wonderfully done, the episodes between the main melodies are fascinating in the way motifs are handed around between the three players, but it’s all very disturbing for players who have to decide how to play the piece. What’s the mood? My answer is that there is no mood. It’s like looking at abstract painting. It’s about colour and shape but it doesn’t paint a scene. So too, with Beethoven here, it’s the music itself that matters, not the mood that the music creates.
How did the Fournier handle this? By playing Beethoven the only way you can: by just playing the music. They revelled in the melodies when they came, they passed motifs backwards and forwards with real sensitivity. It was nothing like the way they had played the Mendelssohn, or the Turina. By seeming so at ease with the disturbing nature of the Archduke they made it OK; it seemed to make sense. They didn’t try to make it seem to be going somewhere, they just enjoyed it bar by bar. It was a triumph.
Not all of the Archduke is as potentially disconcerting as I have described. The Scherzo is quite joky in a quiet way – and how Chiao-Ying Chan managed to get that Steinway to play so quietly I don’t know. She seemed to have no trouble getting it to roar either, when appropriate. But jokiness doesn’t last long in Beethoven; soon ghosts are rising from the dead in 5 flats; very suitable two days before Hallowe’en. Again the playing was restrained, and so all the more effective. The Andante was played dolce just as Beethoven requested. And the final Allegro followed by Presto, where Beethoven is back to his spiky, awkward self, was played with such ease and understanding that we were able to enjoy the ‘abstract’ beauty of the musical writing without wondering where it was all going.
The Fournier are named after the great French cellist, Pierre Fournier, who was the teacher of the teacher of the Fournier’s cellist, Pei-Jee Ng. Fournier was a player of extraordinary elegance and sensitivity. I think he would have been pleased to have this Trio named after him.