Montrose Trio: Works by Haydn and Mendelssohn, Koerner Hall, Vancouver Academy of Music, September 17, 2015

I was very disappointed when the Tokyo Quartet disbanded in 2013.  Their last concerts always maintained the highest standards of excellence, and it had become increasingly apparent just how well the two newest members of the ensemble, violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith had adapted fully into the mix. The quartet spoke with one voice, and while it may have lost some of its youthful energy, it fully compensated in fineness of balance and articulation, and sheer wisdom.  The final Beethoven quartet that I saw them do was Op. 131 and it was riveting to witness the way they negotiated all its different postures with such insight and natural progression, something that may equally apply to a large portion of their final Beethoven cycle recorded for Harmonia Mundi.

It turns out that new ensembles can spring almost accidentally from older ones. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker, one of the first graduates of the Vancouver Academy of Music and one of Canada’s most engaging pianists of the last three decades, had played with the Tokyo Quartet on numerous occasions.  On their final tour, he had joined the quartet for a concert in Calgary, and as he recalled: “They had a shortage of dressing rooms, so I had to share with Martin and Clive for the concert.  In the process, we somehow got on the topic of how much fun it would be to play piano trios”.  The idea clearly stuck and here are the three musicians in their Vancouver debut as the Montrose Trio, the pianist playing on exactly the same stage as his original graduation recital.  Asked where the new ensemble’s name came from, Parker replied: “We knew that it would have to be named after a fine Bordeaux wine, and after considerable research, we settled on Chateau Montrose”.  

First impressions can be misleading but sometimes they are important, and what struck me immediately is that the group already played as if it had been together for a long time.  Martin Beaver and Clive Greensmith of course have had vast experience together, but Parker simply fit with them like a glove.  His piano part took on just the right space in the proceedings, crystal-clear and moving with impeccable balance into the unison passages with the strings.  The second thing that stood out is just how much more freely expressive both Beaver and Greensmith were, though always maintaining their characteristic discipline.  This was big-boned, emotional playing in many ways, larger in scale and less reserved than what might have associated with the Tokyo ensemble: more in the spirit of the Han-Finckel-Setzer, Borodin, or Perlman-Harrel-Ashkenazy Trios than the Beaux Arts or Florestan.  But I am not really sure how ‘big’: Koerner Hall adds a friendly glow to most of the sound, so volume levels turned out to be possibly misleadingly high.  What I am sure of nonetheless is that there was a natural musicality and spontaneity in everything the ensemble touched.

The rarely performed E-major Trio of Haydn was given its full measure as the opening work, the opening and closing Allegros receiving alert, vibrant treatment, often stressing their wit and contrast.  This was not ‘pretty’ playing but one of some drama and incisiveness, with moments of romantic flourish.  The poised, thoughtful playing of Parker matched extremely well, bringing a composed beauty to many musical lines and continuity to the exposition.  The middle Allegretto of the work is quite striking and the ensemble did not shy away from its depth or weight. 

The Haydn was merely the warm-up to the main event: the famous Mendelssohn D minor Trio.  This received a performance of remarkable expressive ardour built on very firm structural parameters.  The opening Allegro had just the right mix of ease and dramatic fervour, the lyrical lines beautifully arched, flow almost perfectly in place.  Sometimes there was an ‘old world’ romantic feeling in the exposition which I found very appealing; other times, an incisiveness and power.  Yet, always, an underlying warmth.  I would have difficulty thinking of a performance that puts all the elements of this movement together much better than this. 

The middle movements carried on this spirit, achieving a nice sense of piquancy and play in the Scherzo, the only qualifications for the Andante being that it might have been slightly softer and had less rubato in the piano line.  However, the finale was simply life-enhancing, so full of spontaneous romantic feeling and inevitability.  I have seldom seen a performance of greater concentration -- or one so exciting.  And with all of the natural expressive warmth there too: each instrumentalist enveloped by the beauty in the work’s telling lines!  Many piano trios have tried for something like this but end up overpowering the work.  Why this worked so stunningly is because the musicians really succeeded in expressing the true feeling and sense of anticipation in the writing. There was not a trace of self-consciousness apparent and their level of technical assurance allowed them to elevate the work to a rare level of immediacy.

Indeed, a wonderful start for the Montrose Trio.  Canadian piano trios have hardly been thick on the ground, and I think the combination of two Canadians and an Englishman justifies the national designation.  The Gryphon Trio has been the long-standing ensemble in Toronto and, small world, Jon Kimura’s brother, Jamie, was a founding member of that.  Both originally played together in a duo named not unexpectedly, the ‘Parker Brothers’, and both were graduates of the Vancouver Academy.   

© Geoffrey Newman 2015