Rethinking Romantic Chamber Music

Trio Jean Paul, Works of Clara Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms,Vancouver Playhouse, April 27, 2009

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Over the past 30 years, there has been a growing interest in performing classical music as it was first played in the composer’s time, paying serious attention to the performing style and instrumentation of the period.  Thus, there are presently available at least eight recorded versions of Beethoven’s complete symphonies using ‘period instruments’. Mainly under the influence of conductors, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Roger Norrington, this interest now extends to many Romantic composers: Berlioz, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms. In all cases, what emerges are performances which, while smaller in scale, are possibly clearer and more vital musically, and purer emotionally, than traditional performances.  The Quatuor Mosaiques has been a pioneer of a similar movement in chamber music, providing revealing performances of the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert.

The Trio Jean Paul, formed by three German musicians in 1991 and now performing in many major musical centers, fits into the above setting in an interesting way.  While playing on modern instruments, they have drawn inspiration from the two conductors named above.  Their ‘historical’ mission is to reveal the roots of Romantic compositions in earlier Baroque pieces. At the same time, they seek to highlight the dramatic ‘speech-like’ aspects of musical discourse that intensify its emotional expression.  A basic question is: Do these musical requirements conflict, or can they actually add up to a satisfying performance?


I think that this is a piano trio to take very seriously.  They are technically accomplished and have an appealing tonal blend.   The musicians listen to each other carefully and achieve considerable concentration and intensity.  Most important, they have put considerable thought into how to create individual interpretations that meet their desired objectives.  The ensemble can switch from passages of momentum and drive to an intimate world of deep personal expression very fluently.   This is managed by a very subtle use of (or absence of) vibrato and is often realized in the cello part.  Many sustained unison passages do not use vibrato at all, and gain an almost-Baroque tonal rawness. Romantic ardour flows only selectively in slow movements but is effective since the basic texture is sparse.

How do these characteristics add up in performance?  In the opening work, a little-performed piano trio by Clara Schumann (wife of Robert Schumann), things went very well.  The structural and lyrical dimensions of the work were finely balanced, the playing was firmly controlled, and the work held my interest more than it had ever before.   However, the Brahms Piano Trio No. 3 and the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 that followed are much more demanding works, being cornerstones of the repertory. 

The Brahms is a granite-like structure that combines dramatic force with the wistful lyricism of Brahms’ later years.  Often, this is depicted as a work composed in a ‘peaceful’ maturity.  Not here however: The Trio Jean Paul attacked the opening chords with such abandon and made the contrasting lyrical expressions so tentative, that the work seemed more about the alternating anger and despair of passing years.  I first thought that this initial movement was too wild and uncontrolled until I heard the presto second movement.  This was so withdrawn and otherworldly that I was almost taken into the night-music of Mahler.  The slow movement was also restrained (with evident Baroque phrasing) and somehow contributed to this desolate feeling.  The final movement was given a rhythmically-intense treatment suggesting grim determination, weaving both the anger and despair together.  Overall, this was a performance that cast new light on the work and possibly Brahms himself.

The Mendelssohn did not succeed as well.  This composer is lighter than Brahms, and depends on being able to extract a sweet, almost innocent lyricism from a fairly unyielding structure of repeated string figurations.  In this performance, the latter was given too much prominence, making the work often powerful but unrelenting.  While the Baroque austerity in the slow movement was interesting, it too meant that the carefree lyricism of Mendelssohn’s writing did not expand naturally.  Overall, I felt that the problem was that Trio Jean Paul attempted to treat the work as more serious than it actually is, largely playing down the moments of relaxed charm and unforced beauty that seem essential.

To be able to write so much about Trio Jean Paul’s debut in Vancouver is a compliment in itself.  If all concerts were this involving, we would be very lucky.  These musicians show the highest promise.  Their most recent CD is of the two Mendelssohn Piano Trios on Avie 8553141. 

© Geoffrey Newman 2009