Concert Review

The London Bridge Trio – Saturday 11th November

By Donald Judge

A keyboard instrument, a violin, a cello… For five centuries, it’s been a standard feature of chamber music, from the days when the music would have been written on two lines – violin and figured bass, the latter played by the cellist with the harpsichord player improvising the harmonies from the little numbers… When a hammered rather than plucked keyboard – the piano – appeared from the mid-1700s, it was that instrument with its greater range of dynamics that took centre stage, often with the violin and cello merely doubling melodies and bass line. It was an ideal combination for the homes of aristocrats, where family members would often excel on the pianoforte, and be taught by composers. Haydn raised the genre, like so many, to a genuine partnership of equals. Beethoven took it forward during Haydn’s lifetime. The growth of concert halls, the increasing size and power of the piano, and virtuosity especially on that instrument took it to new heights in the hands of composers such as Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Smetana and Dvořák, Elgar and Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Some replaced one or more stringed instruments in one or more trios with woodwind, to great effect. Mozart opted for clarinet and viola; Beethoven and Poulenc for clarinet and bassoon; Weber, flute and cello; Brahms and Ligeti, violin and horn. In the early twentieth century, the standard combination became popular for light music in dance halls and on ocean liners, while jazz trios could include any three of reeds, piano, drums and bass. The celebrated trio of Cortot, Thibaud and Casals was among the first to commit works to disc, immortalising some of the pianist’s famous wrong notes; while in the 1950s the Beaux Arts Trio raised the genre to new heights with three permanent members, something normally reserved long term for string quartets. Lovers of the genre in Manchester have been very well served in recent years, with the Pleyel Ensemble performing all of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven’s works for piano trio in combination with many others.

Despite the increasing scale and power, an intimate space remains the right one, and Bollington Arts Centre with its perfect acoustic and warm welcome was ideal for the London Bridge Trio. Violinist Ben Hancox and cellist Cara Berridge had been there as part of the Sacconi Quartet just three weeks earlier: their delight at being back seemed as great as the audience’s. With the trio’s founder, pianist Daniel Tong, they are now the permanent members of the London Bridge Trio, a group (originally the London Bridge Ensemble) that has excited audiences and reviewers for over twenty years. 

Some may have wondered about the boudoir grand Boston piano on stage. Would it be adequate? The answer was a resounding Yes. Designed by Steinway, the instrument, with lid raised, was perfect, sufficient in both power and clarity in three works spanning more than a century. The performers left the audience in no doubt that here were three towering chamber music works, the equal of string quartets by their own composers and others.

Beethoven’s op 1 no 2 is an early work predating the Archduke or Ghost trios. While clearly influenced by Haydn, who himself was still developing the genre, it is unmistakably Beethoven at his most good-natured. A perfect concert opener, but also a substantial work with all the expressive power and virtuosity at the players’ command. They were equally at home in music from around 130 years later, the remarkable trio Fauré wrote at the end of his life. Violinist Ben talked – and it’s such a pleasure when musicians have insights to share, as Cara had about the Beethoven – about the remarkable harmonic language and how the meanderings and dissonances are resolved. In the outer movements, there was a barely imperceptible strengthening of timbre and texture towards the ends, that perfectly realised Fauré’s intentions, while the slow movement reminded us of that composer’s prowess with songs. 

After the Interval, it was Schumann, just three weeks after Ben, Cara and their Sacconi Quartet concluded with his 3rd Quartet. While not as well-known as the earlier Piano Quartet and Quintet – the former concluding the current series – it’s a fine work from – as Daniel reminded us – the most romantic of the romantics. Schumann was steeped in the poetry not only of German but English romantics, and invented the characters of Florestan and Eusebius to represent contrasting facets of his own personality. While his music retains the discipline of classical form, it can be rhapsodic, and he has a unique way with all the elements of music that can be as unsettling as it is satisfying. At one point the strings reinforced an eerie moment with sul ponticello (playing with the bow nearer than usual to the bridge.) At all times, the balance and togetherness of the ensemble, the give and take, were exemplary, the poetic musical expression always served and not upstaged by the virtuosity: Schumann wrote the piano part for not only one of the greatest pianists of her age, but the love of his life and his helpmate, Clara. As with Fauré, Schumann’s finale becomes increasing positive, the sweep and drive to a triumphant conclusion perfectly realised by the London Bridge Trio.

This trio can be heard on the first of their discs called The Leipzig Cycle, along with works by Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, music well worth investigating. But it’s in live performance that music really comes alive. Bollington’s audience knows this (it’s why they keep coming) and their reactions to it – rapt attention and enthusiastic applause – are exemplary. On Saturday, one of their number was alert enough to avert a potential disaster when music parted company from a stand. Those rapt enough to have closed their eyes would never have known. 

One more concert remains before the Christmas break, on December 9th, when the Victoria Quartet based in Manchester and John Bradbury, clarinet bring, among others, quintets by two of that instrument’s greatest advocates, Mozart and Weber.