Monday, 21 February 2011

Northcott Theatre - 'Vienna Mozart Trio'

A happy musical family:
Diethard ('cello), Irena (piano), Daniel (violin)
On the night of Saturday 12 February, the Exeter University Theatre Company removed their scenery and props from the all black stage at the Northcott Theatre.  The next day they were replaced by one grand piano.  On Sunday evening that piano was being played by international piano virtuoso Irena Auner.  Irena is originally from Russia but now has her home (when she is at home) with her husband Diethard in Austria - Vienna of course.
Diethard was on stage too, at the foot of the piano, accompanying his wife with equal skill on his 'cello.  In pride of place, by his mother's side, was their son Daniel playing his violin.
Irena and Diethard have been performing around the world for seventeen years now.  More recently, however, Daniel has joined them to form the 'Vienna Mozart Trio' - in between his other professional engagements.  Daniel, who is now 23, has won a string of international prizes for his playing.  Three years ago he won the Johannes Brahms International Prize, followed by the 'Violin in Dresden'.  At the end of last year he won the KlassikPreis, Österreich Gradus as Parnassum - in Vienna, where else?  He then went on to play the solo in the Alban Berg Violin Concerto with the Tonküstler Orchester at the Vienna Concert House.
The Trio are regular visitors to the UK, and after Sunday's performance they were booked to play in Yeovil followed by the Austrian Cultural Forum in London on Tuesday for a twentieth anniversary celebration.
The Trio's opening piece was by Mozart, of course: Piano Trio in G.  Irena showed us straight away the quality of piano playing we could expect.  By the time the violin and 'cello joined in the audience were entranced.
All three quickly got the measure of the Northcott's acoustics and created a perfectly balanced sound, lyrical piano lovingly enfolded by the polished sound of the violin and 'cello.  The second movement, 'the walk' allowed us to follow each instrument more closely and every note was perfect and delivered with a wonderful depth of feeling.  Having established their credentials the Trio could relax and have fun.  Mozart's Piano Trio ends with a delightful and playful set of variations.  As each elaboration drew to a close Diethard would initiate another with perfect timing.
The programme moved forward in time to Beethoven's Piano Trio in D - 'The Ghost'.  This was much more vigorous than the Mozart.  Irena opened with a concerted attack on the piano and kept up the pace from then on, occasionally slowing to a gentler pace only to crash onwards again.  The combination of instruments was just right to keep each distinct while producing a further dimension of sound when combined. By way of division of labour Diethard and Daniel opened the second movement - slow and expressive - with the utmost delicacy.  Despite a few moments of excitement, Irena was very careful not to dominate the very tender violin and 'cello parts.  Her left hand sustained a very regular tremolo against the other instruments, and even against the playing of her other hand.  When the big piano notes came, Irena's head would fly back with hair flying, just like the master himself - Ludwig Van Beethoven.  For the final gentle heartbeat of a closing phrase Irena kept her eye keenly on the other two ensuring an absolutely perfect finish.  The Presto was a perfect interaction between son and father on violin and 'cello, but now with some really wild and complex piano playing, a very entertaining combination.  Tantalisingly short as it is, the pizzicato flurry on the violin and 'cello just before the final decisive notes was a delight.
The time-honoured custom of pre-ordering drinks for the interval continues at the Northcott.  Not having to take part in a scrum at the bar allows the audience members to take a seat and reflect on what they have heard.  The music of the first half had been very skilfully played and beautifully expressed, but was there anything to lift it above the other masterful performances one might see?  Irena's presence shone through and father and son displayed maturity and youthful vigour in equal measure.  They were surely going to do something really special in the second half.
And it was very special.  While the first half had comprised two three movement trios, the second was a continuous performance of the six consecutive movements of Dvořák's Piano Trio in E minor.  Each movement is what Ukranian Slavs would describe as a Dumka - a meandering and thoughtful ballad.  The mood repeatedly ventures into the realms of sadness and melancholy only to be dragged back to joy and humour.  All three stayed on the roller-coaster ride brilliantly, with Daniel really milking every last ounce of pathos out of the more reflective passages.  After the furious finish to the first Dumka the opening of the second was deceptively slow and pondorous.  The audience were expecting some big change to happen but the trio kept us hanging on very skillfully.  Each false move towards a crescendo was built with total sincerity.  The build up, when in finally did come, was relentless and exhilarating, breaking unexpectedly for a beautiful solo form Diethard, followed by an apparent restart from the very beginning, so slow and gentle it was almost unbearable.  A few twiddles by Irena intimated the onset of more excitement, shorter this time but ending in a violent finish for all three players.  Then - we guessed! - everything was gentle and tender again.  Each instrument played a very simple slow melody, very demanding with no embellishment to help keep the momentum.  This movement was masterfully restrained ending with two precise plucks of the violin string by Daniel.  Daniel's 'tick-tock' at the beginning of Dumka number four was steady as a metronome leading to a plucky little dance, parts of which was literally plucked by Daniel and Diethard - giving way inexorably to the slow and solemn again with an almost imperceptible finish.  Dumka number five involved Daniel and Diethard taking turns to play accompanied by Irena on the piano.  Daniel's high solo section was sweet as a nut, as was Diethard's which followed.  A ticklish little dance on violin and 'cello led to the final thump-thump of chords from the piano.  The final Dumka seemed to pack the previous five into a few short minutes, swinging from one extreme to the other.  To hold this together after all that had gone before demonstrated incredible stamina and skill.  Diethard's low bass drone on open strings was controlled to perfection, deep and sonorous, at some points like the eerie rustling of the wind.  And how was it all going to finish?  Fast and furious or slow and serene?  Right to the last moment either seemed possible but ultimately, what appeared to be a slow sedate close, gave way to one last flamboyant flourish - crowned by delighted applause.  Some who had heard the Dumky many times before and knew exactly what to expect had still been surprised and amazed.  One exclaimed happily that it was the best performance she had ever heard.
After a brief conference the family Auner returned to the stage for a very welcome encore.  There was no introduction, but the tune was soon clear.  The Allegretto from Mozart's Piano Sonata in A - the Turkish March or 'Rondo Alla Turca'!  After the rigid discipline and emotional extremes of the Dumky, the Rondo was fast and furious and wild, but at the same time controlled and perfectly balanced.  A lovely end to any concert.
After a brief return to the south west for a concert in Truro, the Trio are now in West Yorkshire preparing to entertain the music lovers of Huddersfield (whose need, let's face it, is greater even than ours!).  Instead of Dvorak's Dumky, the Huddersfield Music Society and their guests will enjoy Ravel's Piano Trio in A minor.  Never a dull moment with the Vienna Mozart Trio!
Let's hope the Auner family decide to pay us a return visit before too long.  In the meantime the Northcott Theatre Classical Concert Series continues with a visit by the Piatti String Quartet on Sunday 13 March.

Piatti String Quartet
Northcott Theatre Sunday 13 March 7.30pm
Haydn: Quartet Op.76 "Emperor"
Schubert: Quartettsatz
Smetana: Quartet in E minor "Z mého života" ("From my life")
Tickets £13 Box: 493493

The Piatti String Quartet:
Jessie Ann Richardson, 'cello; Charlotte Scott, 1st violin;
Michael Trainor, 2nd violin; David Wigram, viola.

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