This year’s Harrogate Music Festival is themed around the idea of generations. The performance of the Gould Piano Trio on Friday 7th July represented a deep and significant consideration of the relationship of this theme with music. In terms of programming, the Trio elected to begin and close the evening with Beethoven’s Piano trios in Eb major, No. 1, Op. 1 and No. 2, Op. 70. These masterpieces of the piano trio repertoire were split by two works by young contemporary composers: Mark Simpson and Gareth Williams. It is, of course, inevitable that these new works owe a debt in some sense to the seminal works of Beethoven and other masters of the genre such as Johannes Brahms and Joseph Haydn. It is interesting to consider the way in which the programming of this concerts views the relationships between these generations of composers. While the new works are obviously valued, and were both performed and received with great enthusiasm, the inescapable looming presence of Beethoven encircling the programme perhaps illustrates that the generational relationship is still not one of equality. The fact that following the trio’s lunge into the now, the need is felt to return to Beethoven before the evening may come to a close.
Mark Simpson’s work is titled a work for violin, ‘cello and piano rather than piano trio specifically because he felt the weight of this relationship, wishing to allow himself freedom from earlier generations’ contributions to the genre. After Avedon is a composition in four movements based on Simpson’s reactions to four photographs by the influential American photographer Richard Avedon. The trio were performing the work for only the second time following their world premiere of the piece at the City of Culture celebrations in Hull on 2nd July and produced a stunning performance of an exceptionally demanding work, undoubtedly the standout moment within the concert. The final two movements especially demand extreme virtuosity from the trio. In the 3rd, based on a portrait of the artist Francis Bacon, Simpson employs what he calls ‘angular, piercing brutality’ which a is highly accurate description of the latter stages of the piece. Performed with total expertise by the trio the movement had the feeling of a romantic sublime force of nature, leaving the listener blown away, shocked and awestruck. The final section of the work provides an antidote to this sublime horror, while still retaining a high level of virtuosity the movement builds into some moments of profound beauty. For example, the slowly rising conjunct bassline creating a sense of rising emotion and meaning not unrelated to features of contemporary popular music. Simpson suggests this kind of writing intendeds to evoke what he refers to as ‘a more serious sense of belonging together.’ The use of most elements in this final movement are more accessible and conventional, especially harmonically as well as with many witty rhythmic moments capturing ‘a camp playfulness between these two lovers.’
This sense of accessibility is something hugely fundamental to the musical philosophy of Gareth Williams as he explained in his witty and eloquent pre-concert talk. He remarked on his experiences as composer in residence at Scottish Opera between 2011 and 2014, especially the ways in which he had attempted consistently to bring opera both to new contexts (such as the Outer Hebrides and Fraserburgh Lighthouse) and new audiences. The operas he composed during this period consistently had audiences a high proportion of which had never seen an opera before, a fact he found highly exciting. In his composition, Blush, Williams has begun to infuse this philosophy into the genre of the piano trio. His work is based on a 24-bar chord sequence utilising generally simple triads as well as some more dense, ambiguous three note chords. The piece is certainly characterised by a romantic indistinctness and blurring: something William’s affirms in his description of the work that ‘Blush is something of a love song. And, I fear, I am too old to be writing love songs. Hence, after a few minutes, the piece begins to blush.’ This is achieved at the work’s outset through a pervasive use of legato, frequent variations in metre disrupting and blurring the phrase structures, as the well as the use of sustained single notes in the strings throughout the sequence. As the piece progresses, the music gradually increases in intensity and complexity, transforming in character to reach moments of brash staccato intensity. However, just as a blush eventually subsides so does the music, eventually returning to the serenity of the opening in the work’s final bars. The trio’s performance displayed a huge amount of sensitivity, as well illustrating their interests in performing a hugely diverse selection of music, an interest which in 2015 led them to produce a disc celebrating the music of British contemporary composers: James MacMillan, Peter Maxwell Davies and Sally Beamish.
The trio finally returned to Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E flat major, No. 2, Op. 70, a particularly charming work composed around the same time as the Fifth and Sixth symphonies (both premiered in 1808). Having now recorded four discs of Beethoven’s work for the piano trio medium, the Gould Piano Trio are expert interpreters of the master composer’s work, achieving a beautiful balance between placement and movement in the second movement, and a fine sense of Beethoven-esque triumph in the last. The trio themselves interact interestingly with the overarching theme of generations as this year they will celebrate their 25th anniversary. Their enthusiasm for new writing, coupled with a continuing ability to perform masterworks of the piano trio genre to a stunning standard indicate an ensemble still at the top of their game and perhaps not ready to hand over to the next generation just yet.