Wednesday, 18 September 2019

MUSIC REVIEW: The Complete Beethoven Piano Trios: Part 1 - The Carole Nash Hall, Chetham's Music School, Manchester.

As part of the Chetham’s 50th Anniversary Concert series and in anticipation of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year next year, violinist Jiafeng Chen,{ former student at Chetham’s where he now teaches}, cellist Nicholas Jones, {head of strings at both Chetham’s and the RNCM}, and pianist Jianing Kong, {a former student at the RNCM} are performing the complete piano trios for strings and piano by Beethoven in three separate concerts. The first of these took place tonight in the Carole Nash Hall with nearly full attendance.

They opened with the first of Beethoven’s Piano trios, the Eb major Op 1. No. 1. This was not Beethoven’s first published composition but certainly the first that he considered to be a major composition. It was written in 1795 when Beethoven was 25 years old. This was followed by a single movement Allegretto for Piano Trio, WoO. 39 which, written in 1812, showed a clear shift in Beethoven’s compositional maturity, having been written at the end of his second compositional period. After the interval, the musicians returned to perform the famous ‘Ghost’ piano trio in D Major, Op. 70 No. 1, written in 1808.

Classical influences are fully evident in the opening piece of the evening, as was typical of Beethoven’s early style, and a lightness of touch and humour were suitably applied in this performance. There was a playfulness in the dialogue between the parts. I thought there were some balance issues, however, and although the piano is the centrepiece for all of the trios performed this evening, the strings were sometimes lost.

This may have been an issue of the staging – the trio were on the same level as the audience but were slightly to one side of the concert hall, off centre. It was impossible to see the musicians unless you were in the front row. This can affect how music is heard by the audience. The imbalance of parts may also have been an issue of performance practice too – Kong offered many moments of passion and fire throughout the evening but this was not fully matched by the string players who were possibly a bit restrained or delicate at times. These compositions really showcase the piano in many ways, and the part writing for violin and cello take second place, but the string musician attempting these pieces must find a way to make their parts stand out and not be a subtle accompaniment to the piano.

The second piece of the evening saw a slight shift in style away from the classical and this was clear in the longer phrasing and other structural complexity. The three musicians adapted their playing style to reflect this shift towards romanticism. The beautiful melodies in this piece were played with poignancy and meaning.

The highlight of the evening was the final Ghost trio. The second movement of this piece contains extended tremolo sections in the piano, particularly in the lower register, which makes the piano seem to growl quietly and menacingly. This dissonant effect gave the piece its name as, upon hearing it, the composer Czerny said it made him think of the ghost scene at the beginning of Hamlet. This piece provides several challenges to the pianist but of the three performances tonight, this composition also saw Beethoven apply a different approach to his writing for the three instruments, with extended melodic parts in the violin and cello, and more unison/octave parts which gave a unifying effect to the three musicians. These were all played beautifully by the musicians.

The second concert in this series will take place on Tuesday 1st October at 7pm in the Carole Nash Hall.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 17/9/19

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