The Piano Trio is such an unforgiving medium, with problems of texture, balance and dominance based around an instrument that can easily vault from salon intimacy to near-symphonic weight. It was clear that Lisa Batiashvili, Gautier Capuçon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, all of them formidable soloists, have given all this much thought in their London recital, towards the end of their ten-city Europe tour. This series is their first as an ensemble, which goes a long way to explaining the freshness and sense of discovery that distinguished their playing.
Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.1, written by the sixteen-year-old adolescent composer for a girl he was in love with, has the same sort of mercurial charm, optimism and inventiveness he poured into his equally mercurial First Symphony two opus numbers later. Capuçon took charge of the opening’s affecting romance with disarming candour, and as the work’s novel take on sonata form unfolded, so all three musicians fell in with its capacity to surprise, and its biographical element was unmistakable in the way Capuçon’s ardent cello wooed Batiashvili’s violin. Thibaudet’s watchful role on piano injected an element of anxiety, which would be absorbed by the war-time Second Piano Trio two decades later.
From that to the Mediterranean sensuality of Ravel. Capuçon and Batiashvili seemed to spend as much time giving each other visual signals as looking at the music, which gave a clue as to how inside the music they were. Sometimes Capuçon was almost self-effacing in establishing a the correct balance, and throughout the evening it was notable how Batiashvili met him half-way, keeping full violin gleam on a short leash. Their unison passages in the ‘Pantoum’ movement were remarkably volatile, while Thibaudet’s translucent playing made light of the music’s formality (of which Ravel was very proud) and mobile tempos. He then threw Gallic elegance and caution to the wind in the steely, hair-raising bravura of the Finale.
Two, even three, generations before the Ravel and Shostakovich, piano tone was lighter and balance less of an issue. It was Thibaudet who fixed the style of Mendelssohn’s C-minor Piano Trio as a romantic filter for Beethovenian expansiveness and who really had the measure of the work’s ambition. Batiashvili and Capuçon turned the Andante into another love duet, before Thibaudet dazzled us in the rippling evanescence of the Scherzo, a gem of Mendelssohn’s fairy music. All three left us in no doubt of the stature of the Finale, in which their rhythmic energy and bravura led towards the imposing, quasi-Brucknerian chorale without a hint of contrivance.
This was a great account that especially identified the music’s restless passion, and wasn’t exactly enhanced by their first encore, a salon-ish arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘None but the lonely heart’, swiftly followed by the Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.2, played at a near-frantic speed. I hope these musicians come together again – they have an electrifying rapport, and their sound bloomed in the Barbican Hall, which has proven to be a sympathetic chamber-music venue.