Tri con Brio Copenhagen, formed by the Korean sisters Soo-Jin Hong and Soo-Kyung Hong and the Danish pianist Jens Elvekjaer, is clearly a well greased machine, arching and swaying in perfect harmony with each other and the music.
Their Wigmore Hall recital was a night of dramatic and unearthly compositions spanning the years 1808 to 2007. With music and performers at this level, chamber music doesn’t get much more absorbing.
It’s not often said of such a giant, but Beethoven’s contribution was more than slightly put in the shade by the sheer daring and spark of the other three works. The programme started with the old master’s Ghost Trio, which sets off in the wrong gear and, from the racing, jagged first few bars, the performers have to make a swift adjustment in order to find themselves on the right road, rocky as that is. The music swelled and receded in typically turbulent bursts, more tranquil sections drawing honest and emotive cello playing from Soo-Kyung Hong, with no frills or ostentation. As with any single movement of Beethoven there is never only one frame of mind contained in the music and there were little storms brewing which continued into the chirruping 3rd movement.
What happened next robbed my memory of any more details than that. Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no. 2 begins with an unbearably plaintive call from the cello, performed intensely and instantly creating a chilling atmosphere. The soaring ‘harmonic’ notes (i.e. the fingers only lightly touching the strings at certain points, producing a higher pitch than should seem possible) from the cello are taken up by the violin (this time without harmonics, making the violin sound oddly lower than the cello) and then on to the piano in a disconcerting mini-fugue. This kind of music could have continued in the same vein all night as far as I was concerned, but it eventually veered onto a chugging path that steadily grew until the volume suddenly plummeted as the music continued in a stunning near-silence.
There is a good deal of head-nodding in the audience as Shostakovich introduces some snazzy, aggressive folk music with an occasional nagging premonition of his own eighth string quartet (written 16 years later). This was the real ghost of the evening. There were as many dynamic swoops here as in the Beethoven piece, Trio con Brio playing again with deadly focus and agility. The final movement started with booming, chunky chords on the piano, gradually being replaced by a sinister pizzicato section sounding like a tiptoeing villain. The whole thing concluded with the violin finally getting a chance to haunt us with its own searing harmonics.
After the interval there was a new piece. It was sensational. Written by Bent Sorensen in 2007 and dedicated to Trio con Brio, Phantasmagoria started with what sounded like urgent and exotic bird-calls from the violin and cello bursting out in all directions. Using sliding glissando effects, tiny near-melodies appeared only to subtly vanish into thin air. Every sort of unusual technique is used by the strings, but it manages to avoid sounding like “a hundred and one ways to use a violin” manual, maybe because the aim is to explore individual sounds as sounds rather than to tease the audience with quirky novelties.
There aren’t really any musical lines going on little journeys here, more like music reflecting on itself in both senses of the phrase. It seemed likely, but thankfully Sorensen wasn’t tempted to have the pianist reach inside the piano to create those all too familiar “ethereal” effects; there was too much good taste in evidence for that. This was a sensitively constructed collection of gorgeous little morsels. The work ended with a beautiful (though it probably only lasted four seconds) bit of singing by one of the two string players over the closing meanderings of the piano. Again, a wonderfully judged bit of delicacy.
Ravel’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, the final piece, was ravishing from the very first chord. This is sublime music that lifts you like sunlight. Though the instruments share the same musical material, the same tunes, each player projects the music as if it were completely individual to themselves. Jens Elvekjaer’s piano tone (here as elsewhere) was glimmering in the tender passages and powerful in the many dramatic twists of Ravel’s mind. Unlike Shostakovich, Ravel is not hell-bent on convincing us he has an individual musical language; he doesn’t need to because the ideas are pouring out of him so naturally and joyfully.
There was no real interpretive slant on this or any other work in the programme. Trio con Brio are not visionaries, but they recognise that with music so abundantly rich you don’t need to reinvent it to have it radiate with freshness.
Nice little Mendelssohn encore, too.