Review: Chichester Cathedral Lunchtime Concerts series – The Plaegan Piano Trio

The Plaegan Piano Trio, Chichester Cathedral, June 13

The stories seem to suggest that Brahms was a ‘glass half empty’ character, being disappointed that he wasn’t Beethoven. For anybody else the glass would surely have been full to the top on account of being Brahms. 

Alan Brown opened today’s concert in Chichester with the Intermezzo no. 1, op. 119. It’s a blithe piece, gently exploring B minor with a suggestion of Bach in the left hand, perhaps. He was then joined by Helen Sills on violin and Bettina Lawrence-Skeen on cello for the Piano Trio, op.8.

The Trio, or maybe Brahms himself, don’t over-exaggerate most of the tempo markings. All but the Adagio might be ma non troppo. The Allegro began with Bettina, smooth and sonorous before she was augmented by the others for some restrained brio. While this is ostensibly a piano trio, it is the violin that is always involved in its more passionate moments.

Slightly unusually, the Scherzo comes next, scattering some top notes on both piano and violin before the broader, what one might call ‘Brahmsian’, melody brings with it some of the ‘joy’ that the Plaegan Trio takes its name from. But the Adagio comes as a big contrast.

Disembodied, sepulchral, the cello leads its melancholy line over music from 1854 in which the 20 year-old Brahms could almost be credited with anticipating some later C20th music, like the Arvo Pärt we’ve been treated to recently in these parts. The solemn conclusion takes us back to somewhere like where we started. As a mood swing, it is something of an aberration because the Allegro finale, with its expansive flow in the piano part and the top line carried by the violin, returns us to the joy that Brahms, sometimes it seems in spite of himself, is always ready to express but he is surely where C19th music reached its finest synthesis of form and feeling before it all got out of hand.

If Beethoven often appears to us like a caged tiger barely able to suppress some turmoil that is within him, Brahms is not like that at all. Think of that glorious first movement in the 4th Symphony. Brahms is by disposition ‘more temperate’ as was the inside of the cathedral on a day plenty hot enough for many of us and as were the Plaegan Trio. That’s not to say Beethoven can’t be tranquil or that the Trio wouldn’t play Beethoven equally well, that’s just how it was today.

David Green

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