The Aquinas Piano Trio : the second Coffee Concert 2012 – 2013, a review

The Corn Exchange, Sunday 18th November 2012

The Corn Exchange was different today. Sun shone through the great south windows all morning, the heating was perfect, the seats were arranged with intelligence, that is on three and a quarter sides instead of four, so that no-one was unsighted by the piano lid, and the spotlights on the players seemed to be warmer in colour than usual; at least so it seemed when the female players sat down in sleeveless black dresses to reveal golden arms and shoulders. And while I’m praising the Dome I want to mention the page-turner, a man whose name I don’t know but who has turned pages in Brighton for longer than I can remember, and always with the same reliable assurance. It’s not easy to do, and an uncertain page-turner can unsettle a whole audience, which he never has. Thank you, Sir.

They started with Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque, a short piece in one movement that he wrote as a student. It’s simple, very romantic, ends with a funereal dirge, and it’s usually played in the expressive romantic over-the-top way that it seems to call for. The Aquinas did the opposite. Much of it they played quietly. They relied on the beauty of their sound and their exquisite phrasing to bring out the passion of the music. As a result, the emotion of the piece got in under our radar; they seemed to do so little and I’ve never heard it played so beautifully.

The second piece was Mendelssohn’s second piano trio, a big, complex work of fun and fury, with engaging tunes and extraordinary grace. Is there anyone who still thinks Mendelssohn is a light-weight? By the end of the first movement it was clear what this trio are about. Firstly, they play with extraordinary sweetness and delicacy. In this they are helped, for the moment, by the fact that the violinist and cellist were playing on borrowed Guarneri instruments from 1691 and 1693 respectively, but I can’t believe they wouldn’t sound the same whatever the instrument; they might just have to work harder to achieve it. Secondly, 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. The pianist, Martin Cousin, has one of the softest pair of hands in the business. He was able to merge with the strings and not dominate them, making the Yamaha piano as expressive as the strings. Perhaps it helped that it was a fairly ordinary grand piano and not the larger Steinway concert grand that most concert halls think they need to provide, even for chamber music.

By this time the audience was totally won over, the applause at the end of the Mendelssohn being enough for the end of a concert for most ensembles. And at the end of the concert we got an encore, which is not routine after such big works.

The Dvorak Trio No. 3 is another big work, full of tunes, and changes of mood, and the Aquinas worked the same magic on it and on us. What happens when an audience feels transported in the way we did this morning? It helps that they were a joy to look at, with youth and beauty on their side. It helps that they seemed very comfortable in front of us, that they move about expressively (on their chairs – they don’t walk about) as they play, that the two women, superficially alike with their blond hair and black gowns, reveal very different playing personalities. The violinist, Ruth Rogers, remains poised and elegant, with only the odd frown or raising of her eyebrows, while Katherine Jenkinson, the cellist, reveals every emotion on her face, alive with joy then almost tearful as the music changes to anguish.

Something happens at a concert like this that is more than the sum of the parts. It’s why recording will never take the place of live performance. It’s that we had an experience that we contributed to, and which we come out of changed, if only for a short while. Those who stayed behind in the Dome foyer afterwards for a few minutes found there was yet another dimension to the Trio; they are also really nice young people who have children and who drink coca cola. Oh well, no-one’s perfect (and I don’t mean the children – they were).

Andrew Polmear