Coffee Concert 24th March 2019 – Aquinas Trio – Strings Attached Review by Andrew Polmear

It has been 6 years since I last reviewed a coffee concert by the Aquinas Trio. Then I was struck by the expressive delicacy and clarity of their playing. I noted that they play as one, not just with impeccable intonation and perfect ensemble, but in the way they interpret the music: understated but not unfeeling, emotional but not showy. That way of playing is just as apparent now.

It’s a style that worked wonderfully for their first piece, the late Haydn Trio (Hob.XV:28). We think of Haydn as a ‘classical’ composer but to his contemporaries he was just modern; one contemporary referred to his writing as ‘romantic’. This trio shows why. The second movement especially, with its long piano solo, is packed with emotion, far from the witty, clever writing that Haydn also does so well. Martin Cousin’s piano playing was marvellous; tender and expressive, his runs as fluid as quicksilver. All three players brought out the feeling in their understated way, with the most gentle of rubati or the hardly noticeable emphasis on the key notes of a phrase.

Mendelssohn’s Trio No.1 starts with one of those glorious cello tunes that makes you want to take up the cello immediately. And suddenly I felt that Katherine Jenkinson’s playing was too understated. It’s true that Mendelssohn marked it piano but piano in a concert hall still needs to be projected. She played it as an introspective piece of soul-searching when I wanted her to fill the hall with her sound. I read this first movement as packed with exuberance, even a triumphant enjoyment of life, and the Aquinas’ delicate style didn’t quite convey that to me. I enjoyed the second movement more; it’s a tender piece and they captured that marvellously. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a pianist manage to play so quietly on that Steinway. The third movement was suitably helter-skelter in mood but there, and in the tumultuous fourth movement, the  playing was still on the delicate style. Mendelssohn, for me, does call for something more extrovert.

At this point I’ll pass on an apology from Management! The programme notes were excellent as always but a copy and pasting error led to the wrong details of the movements for both the Mendelssohn and the Schumann. There are, of course, four movements in each and they do not have the labels given in the programme!

Schumann, as he often does, starts his second piano trio like a slap in the face – no introduction, just straight in to the action, as though you’ve walked into a room where a furious argument is going on. Rather than revel in that abruptness the Aquinas started quietly, as though trying to slip in to the room unobserved. They played the whole trio wonderfully in many ways; they captured the restlessness, the rapid changes from tenderness to excitement and back again, all in a few bars. They were especially good in the exquisite plaintive second movement, and they were fine with the quirky rhythms of the third movement, and the shifts of mood in the fourth. My only reservation is the same as my feeling about the Mendelssohn: I like Schumann to grab me by the lapels and shake me; here I had to concentrate so as not to miss the incredible riches of the piece. The warmth of the applause makes me wonder if mine is a minority view: taste in music is so idiosyncratic. But what can a reviewer do except give an honest opinion?

Andrew Polmear