Trio Shaham-Erez-Wallfisch, Music by Beethoven, Arensky, Rachmaninoff and Brahms, Playhouse, November 3, 2015.

 Photo by Hagai Shaham

Photo by Hagai Shaham

Since the dissolution of the Beaux Arts and Florestan Trios in fairly recent times, we have hardly had a surplus of good new piano trios to replace them.  We were able to see the impressive new Montrose Trio early in the fall, and the young and insightful Sitkovetsky Trio will come in 2016, but the arrival of the Trio Shaham-Erez-Wallfisch for their Vancouver debut was more than an equal cause for celebration.   Formed in 2009, this ensemble has already recorded a number of well-received CDs for Nimbus.  Violinist Hagai Shaham and pianist Arnon Erez have been duo partners for years but their conjunction with Raphael Wallfisch, by many standards England’s finest cellist over the past few decades, adds a definite authority to the ensemble.  Having seen the cellist in so many concerto appearances and heard his glorious repertoire captured in more than 70 CDs, it was exciting to see him close up and be able to affirm just how precise, sensitive and commanding his playing actually is.  I found this most enriching, and the musicality that he brought to the ensemble was noteworthy.

This was a ‘big’ programme, with four piano trios in total. The Beethoven ‘Ghost’ Trio opened the concert, and the ensemble negotiated it with a nice combination of discipline, sensitivity and romantic ardour.  This was not heavy playing, more one that communicated a fresh enthusiasm and a good sense of motion.  Considerable attention was paid to both detailing and dynamics: one could see the great effort that Shaham and Wallfisch made to play off each other in just the right way and keep their volumes and phrasing matched.  This turned out to be unfailingly true in everything they played.   I thought the group achieved fine concentration throughout, the allegro quite beguiling in its combination of strength, wit and sensitivity, the Largo somber and inexorable, and the finale attractively thought-out.  This work appears to be relatively new to the ensemble and it seems to me that they might eventually come to a sharper dramatic profile in the ‘ghost’ movement and greater push towards the end of the finale.  I am not saying the playing was cautious, just that there may be room for more daring at points.  The other element that I noted was that the piano does not assert itself, or cut the texture, that often. Arnon Erez plays with consummate elegance and intelligence, which is absolutely admirable, but I still wish he could step forward sometimes to consolidate the stronger contrasts.

I might have doubted that the ensemble would have the weight, sentiment and dramatic force to carry the Arensky and, particularly, the Rachmaninoff trios.  Perhaps I have been too influenced by the Borodin Trio and others, who have sought very broad tempos and great emotional weight, sometimes verging on the lugubrious.  In fact, the current interpretations worked out very well, faster and freer than that tradition might suggest, but still very passionate and feeling.  In many respects, these were the best performances of the night.

One can hardly avoid being swept away by the lyrical charm of the opening movement of the Arensky, and this had a fine freedom and ardour, taken at a fairly quick pace.  As things progressed, what impressed me most is just how tender and genuine much of the expression was.  Combined with crisp articulation (Wallfisch was particularly impressive), this took the trio pretty much from beginning to end with continuous delight.  The two-movement Rachmaninoff ‘Trio élégiaque’ No. 1 is more forlorn, intended as a homage to Tchaikovsky, and the group unintendedly added their own pain when the violinist broke a string in the first movement, necessitating a restart of the work.  The ensemble was outstanding in the way they got the underlying flow of the music in place, anchoring their potential to be really expressive and, in the case of Shaham in particular, very passionate.  I also liked the way the ensemble could move between varied textures: from surging feelings to the most quiet and pensive reverie, shaded so subtly. 

Four trios is a lot in an evening and I think the closing Brahms C major trio suffered to a degree, being a bit stylistically wayward and not achieving the same concentration overall.  The desire to find a long lyrical line within the opening Allegro, and to bring out its ruminative and whimsical qualities, was nonetheless revealing.  It was expression in the Andante that was the problem, too filled with the ghost of the Rachmaninoff they had just played – in the excessively romantic expression, in the slow tempo, and in the coaxing flow.  I found it too luxuriant: Brahms is made of sterner stuff!   Bits of the same occurred in the next movement – exuding a ‘grandness’ more Russian than German – but I don’t think anything here placed a scar on the excellence of this concert. This is a most sensitive and perceptive ensemble that can do so many things well. And, yes, they even had time for an encore: Fritz Kreisler’s ‘Miniature Waltz’.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015