31 March 2013

Schubert Trio No. 2 in E flat, D 929

The Poet
Seraphim Trio
25 March 2013
Temptation: Faust and Schubert
Firebird Trio
27 March 2013

The Salon
Melbourne Recital Centre

At the age of 30 could Schubert see the dread spectre? Did the prospect of doing business with him terrify the man or did he decide to take Him on, to scorn him, to dance around him and defy him to do his worst - or all of the above? At 30? Surely not – except the dance bit.

Schubert like any other normal, fit, young, teutonic male was invincible – immortal, full of energy and as eager to attempt to spawn progeny (he may have died of mercury poisoning, a common treatment for syphilis) as the bloke next door. Alive, happy, full of life and fun, needing to dance.

Young Franz  - possibly

How do we know all this? It`s in his writing. An artist of any sort can only write what`s in his head and that profile is in Schubert`s music. It’s all there in The Trout quintet at 22; as you’d expect.

It`s all there in his second piano trio too, but in this case the joy is underpinned by something much blacker, something much more terrifying.

The second movement, Andante con moto. Note the cello theme

I know the trio of course or I thought I did. Then I heard two performances three days apart both in the same room using the same Steinway by trios who were much the same age. Pure good luck. What a great opportunity to compare and contrast.

I was entranced by Seraphim’s interpretation. Anna is, technically, incredibly secure. So are the others but the fact is more obvious on the percussive piano. Helen’s filigree was ethereal and Tim’s cello was, seriously, without peer in terms of pathos, particularly in the second movement. It has developed cracks, he told me, and acquired a hum as a consequence, but it wasn't audible to us even in the intimate Salon.

I wondered why nobody had commissioned a recording of Seraphim’s take on this trio. And I wondered if a recording could capture the sonorous pathos that Seraphim found in this work. It was an electric performance – intense and emotionally exhausting. We, the audience, should have had a minute or two to start breathing again before the applause began.

The manuscript

Two days later: Firebird. What luxury. And this was as good an expression of the richness of Melbourne’s music scene as we’ll get: two world-standard gangs performing the same work in the one week.

Seraphim had opened with Haydn and Beethoven, Firebird with, among other things, a brilliant Busoni arrangement by Benjamin Martin. Both groups provided masterful first halves. Seraphim really understand Hayden – classical but at the same time humorous. I loved Firebird’s Busoni-Martin. Wonderfully spikey and it made me smile.

However, at the end of Schubert’s number 2 Trio Firebird got a standing ovation. Why?

Technically, they were as secure (as you’d expect) as Seraphim but it seemed to me that Firebird’s job came down to Benjamin’s piano – emphatically, and not just my opinion. He had the emotional control, the master of understatement. He let the poor bugger (Schubert) sing at every opportunity – and there were many such – where a major key idea burst out over the tragic minor and the cello. He breathed it like an accompanist, delicate, delightful against the raw energy of lashing out – against death? I decided he was/is a singer or he had spent his younger years playing for church.

In the end both performances left me satisfied - and proud to live in a town where music performance of this quality (as good as any I've heard anywhere else in the world) was available. The two performances were the same and so different. In the end I decided that Seraphim edged towards Schubert’s symphonies – more orchestral, more sonorous. Firebird’s edged towards his songs – more delicate, more lyrical.

And don’t ask me which I liked/admired more. The question simply does not compute. Benjamin says, “Huge work the Schubert. Just having a concept won't get you through. One needs the will too... And both groups had it – in spades.

Approved (male) cellist concert dress (fake beard not included)

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