Coffee Concert 18th November 2018 – Jacquin Trio – Review by Andrew Polmear

A lovely brisk day, sunlight filling ACCA’s café, an engaging brief talk by Jessie Grimes: everything augured well for this concert by the Jacquin Trio. Yet I found myself slightly thrown for a moment or two. It was partly that Schumann opens his Märchenerzählungen with quirky little figures from the piano and viola, plunging us straight into the action with no lead-in, and partly that I’m just not used to the combination of clarinet, viola and piano. Instead of the intensity and intimacy of the string quartet these are much more disparate instruments and I had difficulty reconciling their very different sounds. Schumann doesn’t help by giving the players parts to play that emphasis their apartness rather than their ability to gel. But then it all started to work and to work wonderfully. The joy of this combination lies in those very differences between the instruments; and every composer on this programme brought out those differences and used them to make pieces of tremendous character. And it’s all done with a greater chance of fun than a string quartet can usually manage.

Added to that was the very special character of the players themselves. All three are players of real virtuosity, Kay Stephen on violin and viola was especially outstanding technically. More than that they played with total commitment; there wasn’t a moment when they didn’t totally own the piece they were playing. Another point was the joy they spread around – from the moment they walked on they looked pleased to be there and as the morning went on the smile on Kay Stephen’s face became bigger; she and Jessie Grimes were dancing by the end.

The Märchenerzählungen is a light hearted piece, until the more martial final movement. The playing was gentle, playful, tuneful, above all it was unforced. They didn’t try to sell us this piece; rather the opposite, their understated approach said “listen carefully, there’s lots of interest here but it’s not necessarily on the surface”.

Charlotte Bray’s Blaze and Fall was another matter altogether. It opened with one of the shortest, most sparse movements every written – it felt that there were so few notes they didn’t reach double figures. It seemed to be more about silence than about sound; and the silence was intense. After that the mood changed, at times mischievous, anguished, then tranquil again. Sometimes only one player was involved, sometimes two, sometimes three. It ended dramatically with the pianist standing up, reaching into the body of the piano and slapping the strings to make an unworldly sound to match the whispered harmonics from the viola.

With Colin Matthews’ Two Miniatures our feet were more firmly on the ground. The opening miniature was short but full bodied, after the sparseness of the Bray piece; the second was thoughtful and, by the end, funny.

Which brought us to the one piece most of us probably knew, Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio. They started almost tentatively, as though trying out the first theme, before letting the momentum carry them along. Like the Schumann they were gentle with it, revelling in the effortless melodies, enjoying the fun, allowing themselves a little melancholy in the final movement. Everything was exquisitely phrased; above all it was played with love.

After the interval Charlotte Bray’s Chant began with music not unlike her first piece: music of the spheres rather than this earth. I note that Bray herself wanted extremes in every aspect of the music. Certainly the violin went so high and quiet at one point that I don’t think anyone over 40 could hear it. But the middle section was suddenly riotous, and she writes riotousness as well as she writes tranquillity.

They played Bartok’s Contrasts next. This is a complex and big work – almost orchestral at times, there’s so much going on, with virtuoso parts for all players. The first movement is packed with energy; hardly something you could dance to, despite the title of “Recruiting Dance”. The second movement is more tranquil but the third returns to something even more energetic, with jazzy, syncopated rhythms. It was furious, it was funny; there was nothing understated this time about the performance. We were seeing another side to these players; they roared though it in a way that was intoxicating for the audience. So the playing in the first half was not their “house style” it was them responding to the music. Here was the other side of the coin. They are marvellous performers.

They had moved Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale Suite to the end of the programme and I think this was right. The brief narration by Jessie, to verses summarising the action by Kay, worked well and as a coup de theatre it would have been hard to follow it, even with the Bartok. It was bouncy, jazzy, funny, seductive, and serious. This was where Kay’s extraordinary violin playing showed itself best and where she and Jessie danced most. Pianists don’t get to dance but Charis Hanning’s playing did the dancing for her.

I don’t know how they can put together another programme; this one must contain most of the works for this combination worth playing. Except of course, that modern composers clearly want to write for them; and we can see why. If they do have another programme up their sleeves I hope we get to hear it.