It was happy eighth birthday for the Fournier Trio on Sunday. Eight years to the day since their foundation, and the sixth year of their Wolfson College association which rolls on for at least another year. They seem to be going from strength to strength, with an appearance booked at New York's Carnegie Hall.
This was the concluding leg of their complete Beethoven Piano Trios cycle, in front of an audience of c. 90, many of whom had heard the entire cycle, in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, super-smart in pale chestnut panelling, pyramidal roof and pillars of, I think, sprayed concrete. The seating is quite steeply raked, offering a perfect view of the stage, and the acoustics as good as one would expect. The warm welcome on the door plus wine in the interval completed the picture of a classy venue hosting a top chamber ensemble playing music that I heard Alfred Brendel recently on Radio 3 describe as 'first rate even for Beethoven's chamber output'.
We began with the Trio in C minor Op.1 No. 3, the scored dramatic tension established immediately in the piano part by Chiao-Ying Chang. In the succeeding menuet, the players handled with ease the abrupt switches of mood and tempo, including pauses. The prestissimo marked tempo for the finale was strictly observed, showing a clear differentiation from the first movement's allegro con brio.
The middle of the three works, the Trio in B-flat major Op 11 is slightly less familiar, at least in this format since the 27 year old Beethoven left us the option of the piano part being taken by a clarinet, and in Vienna and elsewhere around the turn of the 18th-19th century I think it would have been heard more commonly in its woodwind guise. As the piano plays, it's an interesting exercise to imagine the clarinet in its place. The piano and Pei-Jee Ng's cello set up a strong rhythm at the start, then violin and cello were joined by bouncing notes from the piano, and then in the Mozartian adagio the cello led with the poignant melody, ending in an abbreviated scale.
The third movement is a set of little variations on a theme from a comic opera, The Corsair in Love, and here the Beethovian muscular way with chords emerged, even somehow in the piano trill late on, full of raw vitality and followed by hollow plucking from the cello. On the last note violinist Sulki Yu thrust her instrument high, throwing out her bowing arm in an expression of high spirits; the movement encapsulated how the Fourniers had gone about their work here: with delicacy, energy and joie de vivre. The cultural life of Oxford is fortunate to benefit from their frequent presence.
After the interval came the Trio in E-flat major Op.70, No. 2, one of the best-known of the 12 Trios. After the opening poco sostenuto fugue comes the double variation of the allegretto, and the rippling notes here from Yu's violin as the trio delivered the second theme chimed in perfectly with the super-glossy, open piano lid in which was reflected the red felt of the piano's interior. A gorgeous effect for eye and ear. Then we were brought down to earth by a harsher sound from the jagged chords from the cello. In the succeeding allegretto the combining of the three instruments was perfectly achieved.
I had been struck by how infrequently Chiao-Ying Chang looked at her partners; indeed the violinist was almost out of her sight line. This bespeaks long acquaintance and sure confidence. In the finale, the rushing allegro, Chang flung herself at the keyboard like a ravenous tigress, pouring out the blizzard of notes as she went up and down the range, with never a single dud note so far as I could discern. I have a recording of Luba Edlina with the Borodin Trio playing this movement live in 1984 with such attack that I thought impossible to match. Here I think I heard its equal.