Winterplay 2019, an all-day festival of chamber music and collaborative musical events, was brought to a close this Saturday by an evening concert of piano trios. Featuring highly skilled musicians with years of experience behind them (and their instruments), we were certainly in for a mid-February treat! The concert starred artistic director Susan Tomes on the piano, the highly accomplished Erich Höbarth on the violin, and the passionate Philip Higham on the cello.
It was an interesting choice to start the concert with Beethoven’s Trio in D Major Op 70 No. 1 ‘Ghost’. The musicians demonstrated skills of the highest proficiency, mastering various rapid semi-quavered passages, timing, as well as controlling of expressions at the same time. It was very clear that the musicians were familiar with, and rehearsed, the repertoire well. However, the balance of the instruments could have been tidier and stronger. During the explosive outbursts of sounds between lyrical passages, there was a power struggle between Tomes and Höbarth, while Higham respectfully maintained a level that was heard but not overpowering.
This attitude was regularly reflected in their playing. The first piece became a showcase of personal musicianship rather than a piano trio working in unity. Despite Höbarth’s virtuosic and expressive violin playing, it would have been great to hear the trio as a musical group rather than as a background to Höbarth’s violin concert. This was a shame, as Tomes graced the piano with immense precision and elegance. Even Beethoven and Shubert’s fierce and stormy movements did not discourage her playing. This contrasted well with Higham’s confident and expressive cello skills, often having to play notes rapidly which span across the entire neck while playing double stops. However, the sounds of his cello, an instrument with great depth, was unheard due to the imbalance of volume from each musician.
Despite this, the trio’s commitment to the musical pieces shone right through. Every piece, including Schubert’s Piano Trio No 2 in E-flat Major, was well timed and conducted. Even though there was no formal conductor, both Tomes and Higham often looked at Höbarth for musical cues, which showed a level of communication that brought success to the performance. Alongside this, their expressive capabilities I would argue outshone their technical performance. Both Höbarth and Higham were very focused on connecting to the music and feeling the notes, which was surely reflected in their playing, whilst Tomes, though expressive, focused on the performance aspect. Both are signs of a great performance, which surprisingly worked really well as a trio – one pianist who focuses on keeping the trio together, and two string players whose emotions intertwined with the composers’ music.
Altogether, this was a fabulous and eloquent concert showcasing accomplished musicians, whose dedication to Classical and Romantic composers was reflected by their proficient and expressive playing.
PHOTO: Queen’s Hall