Beethoven: Florestan Trio, Wigmore Hall, London 11.1.12 (GDn)
Beethoven: Piano Trio Op.11
Beethoven: Piano Trio Op.1 no.2
Beethoven: Piano Trio Op.70 no.2
Like all the great chamber ensembles, the Florestan Trio have achieved their spectacular results through many years of close collaboration. These three farewell concerts mark the end of 16 years together, and every minute of that stretch has informed and enriched the playing we heard this evening.
The group are as well known for their recordings as their live performances, and hearing them live it is easy to tell why the microphones like their sound. Anthony Marwood's violin defines the ensemble's textures and timbres. His sound is quite brash, a metallic and penetrating timbre. It was clear from every phrase he played this evening why he is now prioritising his solo work over chamber music commitments. His is a sound than can project over any ensemble and which easily fills the Wigmore Hall. But that's not to say he lacks subtlety, or that there is ever any balance problem within the ensemble.
Cellist Richard Lester matches Marwood both in sound quality and projection. They both have a penetrating metal string tone, but that never sounds grating or inappropriate. Rather, they both use it to make their lines all the more emphatic and clearly articulated. In terms of the ensemble within the group, the relationship between the violin and the cello is the most remarkable. The two early works in the programme, Opp.11 and 1 no.2, often call for the violin and cello in octaves. That can be tricky to pull off, but the ensemble and intonation between them was beyond reproach.
Susan Tomes also has an assertive approach. The balance between the three players is ideal, and Tomes, for her part, keeps up with the violin and cello by putting in more attack than you might expect. The Wigmore Hall acoustic does all the rest. It transforms those heavy accents into big, round piano textures and blends it with the other instruments, without blurring any of the details.
The early period works in the first half showed off the group's skills more than the Op.70 no.2 after the interval. I love the way that the players take the young composer's straightforward textures and find all the beauty they are capable of expressing, yet without adding anything or over-interpreting. Although the string sound is often metallic, and rubato is kept to a minimum, the performance here never risked austerity. The reading was Classical rather than Romantic, especially in the four-square phrasing and the focus on the music's structure. But there was plenty of vibrato here too, and the players never skimp on the incremental tempo changes when they are written in the score.
The Op.70 no.2 Trio is a very different work. The three players are much more independent of each other and the variety of textures is all the greater. While the Florestans are clearly capable of handling any technical challenge Beethoven might throw at them, they seemed more comfortable with the homophonic textures of the earlier works than the polyphonic ones here. And if there was one failing of the performances this evening, it was a lack of mystery. True, Classical era music, even middle or late period Beethoven, shouldn't need too much psychological intrigue. But most of the quieter passages were excessively literal and emphatic. The quiet opening of the Op.70 no.2 Trio was perfunctory at best, simply fulfilling its structural function rather than introducing the psychological complexities of what is to follow. The end of the first movement is meant to sign off with a whimsical flourish, but again the reading was too literal for Beethoven's humour to come through.
Fortunately, the last two movements redeemed all. In the Trio section of the third movement the players finally found the sense of mystery that the opening of the work had lacked. And the performance of the finale was ideal. Again, there are quiet and atmospheric episodes here, but by splicing them into lively and more assertive music, Beethoven gives the players the platform they need to perform both with panache.
This was the second of three farewell concerts from the Florestan Trio at the Wigmore Hall. Programme-wise it was perhaps the least exciting, or rather the least saleable. It is testament then to the reputation that the ensemble has established over its 16 years together that their wasn't an empty seat. And whatever reservations I may have had, the usually reserved Wigmore audience gave the players a thundering ovation.