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Possessed by the music

a review by Julia Meredith

When I picked up Trio Gaspard’s flier a couple of weeks ago, I felt baffled. Why would performers who are so acclaimed wherever they appear, from Wigmore Hall to a host of prestigious European venues, choose to cover their faces… effectively to make themselves anonymous?
After their recent concert at St James, I think I may understand. When they play, these three musicians seem almost to relinquish their identities, and hand over control to the demands of composer and instrument.
And what agility this must take. With elastic versatility, the Trio’s repertoire spans the creative spectrum, from the endearingly familiar to some works so new as to be yet largely unknown. And part of their spontaneity was deciding on the day what their programme was to be.
As if to limber up for the challenge ahead, they launched with the familiar delights of Haydn’s Piano Trio in E major, whose refined, sweet-tempered music never fails to bring a sigh of contentment to audiences. His Piano Trio in E major was written in London, after a stint in the Esterhazy court had brought him fame, and was received with fulsome praise.
What struck me, as they expanded into the Allegro Moderato, was how instinctive their playing felt. They seemed to surrender themselves entirely to the character of the music. From the plucked opening notes, through the sensual prolonging of phrases, the impression was of an unreserved conversation between lifelong friends … with all the intensity, enthusiasm and unspoken dialogue that such intimacy permits. The shoeless violinist’s besocked toes danced with helpless glee in relish at the message, as did his cockatoo crest of curls at the other end…and their shared smiles in the satisfying launch of a theme made us all grin in response.
The Rondo saw them scurrying after the tune like parents of a wilful child, lovingly shepherding it down the best paths. I caught a whiff of tremulous klesmer from the violin on occasion, an unashamedly emotional response to the humanity in the music.
Wonderful crisp attack and a fluent shaping of the arc of the melody were my overriding impressions of the Gaspard’s modus operandum, here and throughout their programme. These qualities speak of so much time spent in one another’s company, across so wide a sweep of different music (not always accessible to audiences used to more conventional sounds), one can imagine they must almost read one another thoughts.
This last quality would have come in useful in the piece that followed. The Gaspard is known for commissioning new works from young composers. Helena Winkelman’s ‘Threesome in a high-den’ was only premiered a week before the Trio played it at St James. Uncompromising, arrhythmic to the outsider, this work must I think have tested their connectivity to the limit; but their reciprocal antennae saved them from fracturing.
In the melancholy second movement with its air of a receding train whistle, the maintaining of their bond through unfathomable phrases was an impressive act of concentration.
The skittish third movement with its jabby, almost throwaway lines saw them exchanging sly sideways glances, as though daring one another to play faster – more furiously – take more risks. It was a thrilling trial of nerves, and they held firm, to give these new sounds an honorable debut.

Sandor Veress’ Tre Quadri were, we were told, based on paintings: Claud Lorraine, Poussin, and from the folk idiom of the Peasants Dance, I’d imagine Breughel. The first was a chance for the cello to shine: beautifully lyrical passages that swelled and retreated with the greatest delicacy.
The second movement was darker, forlorn atonality that gave off a whiff of drifting through a wasteland devoid of recognisable features. Their inward expressions, their frowns of fierce concentration suggested more trial than pleasure ; but faithful to this bleak vision.
Their enthusiasm reignited in the third movement – plucked cello notes dropping like depth charges to herald a wild syncopated dance, irresistible percussion from the piano (who guessed that such sounds could come out of our Steinway!) and a tugging boisterous energy that swept us along in the tide.
We, and they I’m sure, appreciated the breathing space of Interval.
Brahms’s Hungarian Dances were for many, the big draw of the evening. These proved to be the most profitable pieces he ever wrote. Based on folk tunes and gypsy music, Brahms was equally inspired by Liszt’s extremely successful Hungarian Rhapsodies. From the earliest performances audiences responded to a sound drenched in lyrical Eastern European melancholia.
I have heard these played often: on the piano, by duos, quartets, full symphony orchestras. I have to say the Gaspard seemed to capture the visceral emotion of the Dances with an air of religiosity that trembles with fervor (that Klesmer quiver again) …and the urgency of joy in a time of genuine human frailty. For me, it felt as though they’d opened an unguarded doorway into a living past, expressing an era whose tragedies and yearning could otherwise be accessed only via print or paint.
As I mentioned earlier, Trio Gaspard decided on their pieces after the programme had been printed, so alas I can’t tell you the concluding works with any certainty. Brahms, and beautiful, that I do know.
Their complete engagement with the music and each other gives the sense of eavesdropping on a private conversation… possibly even in a private language. We don’t always understand it; but they do, and so it works. There is so much going on beyond the score that we can only grasp at it as it flies – and like a bird of paradise once glimpsed in a rainforest, the memory enhances our lives. We are privileged to share airspace briefly with such rare beings.
Our warmest thanks to all who helped bring Trio Gaspard to Guernsey as part of the Swallow Recital Series. They are just the latest in a bumper year of exhilarating new performers to appear at St James, and we are very aware of our good fortune.
Julia Meredith April 2024


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