REVIEW: Trio Wanderer – Coffee Concert at The Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Sussex University

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Vincent Coq (piano), Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin), Raphael Pidoux (cello). Dvorak, Trio No 4 in E minor Op90 B166 ‘Dumky’ (1891); Suk, Elegie Op23 (Under the Influence of Zeyer’s Vyšehrad) (1902); Schubert, Trio No 2 in Eb D929 (1827), shorter version.

What’s it like to be early middle-aged French, and needing to rehearse after breakfast then perform at 11am on a Sunday at a chamber music concert in an English university venue in front of 208 eagerly awaiting people? That’s the boat Trio Wanderer were in, following a fortnight’s break after six consecutive French concerts playing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. I wondered if this had any significance as I listened to their programme.

This ensemble is 30 years together out of the Paris Conservatoire. Men in their 40s, maybe early 50s, in stylish high-necked black shirts. Semi-veterans compared to the eager and vibrant ensembles in their 20s and 30s who have propelled another excellent Coffee Concert season. A season which Trio Wanderer duly wrapped up in this last concert with a tray of cupcakes and fizzy pop when they encored with the presto finale (taken almost prestissimo) of Haydn’s ‘Gypsy Rondo’ Trio No 39 in G.

It’s a dead-cert winner and a party piece by now Trio Wanderer can probably play virtually in their sleep – even at that tempo.

I was excited at the prospect of this concert. Trio Wanderer the morning before had been in the final run-in of BBC Radio 3’s ‘Building a Library’ of Messaien’s ‘Quartet For The End Of Time’. And their new anniversary CD in December, including this Dvorak Trio, had this month been awarded a Diapason D’or.

Their Coffee Concert was to conclude with 40 luxurious minutes of Schubert, to whom Trio Wanderer openly salute in their choice of name (the composer of Wanderer Fantasy for piano, plus plenty of songs about, or of, wandering heartbroken or lovesick men). Yet after their account of his Eb Trio I was left pondering whether that naming tactic might be backfiring by making us expect Schubert interpretational wonders from them.

I had hoped this work, following the interval in which some Strings Attached Society members will have been supping sherry, perhaps counter-productively, might lift the second half. Dvorak’s ‘Dumky’ Trio, of sometimes laconic Bohemian dances juxtaposed with melancholic airs and thoughts somehow, despite some enhancing instrumental effects, never gets going. The repeated spasms of dance failed ultimately to drag the mood out of the marsh water. Or they did this morning.

Next was the Elegy of Dvorak’s son-in-law, Josef Suk. It’s a piece composed when he was happy but commemorating the death of a favourite poet and referencing a poem nostalgic for lost better times, as we learned from Chris Darwin’s free, accompanying programme notes. The scenario was not exactly threatening to turn the first half into a celebration of spring and, indeed, the music combined with the Dvorak, and unexpectedly dark lighting, to leave the atmosphere downbeat, almost oppressive.

Yet was it ever realistic to expect Schubert, no matter how superbly played, to establish and sustain after the interval a carefree antidote to what went before? This outwardly cheerful Viennese man’s compositional penchant and beauty is to juxtapose not tempos as Dvorak but minor and major tonality. So it was a bitter-sweet feel which Trio Wanderer brought in this choice of music.

An engaging facet of live chamber music-making is the interaction of the players with each other, shown via torso, limb, head and eye. It’s not present in orchestras who have a conductor requiring their constant attention. In contrast to the younger, more intense, seemingly more alert though less experienced Trio Isimsiz here in January, Trio Wanderer hardly looked at each other at all.

Yes, pianist Vincent Coq frequently turned to sync with his string players but they never turned to him, not even in joint rapture or enjoyment. Were they on autopilot, I conjectured? Emotional sparks were thin on the ground, similarly a sense of adventure, in a performance of accomplishment − naturally − but one suggesting less team involvement.

I could not fail to enjoy the Schubert but received little invigoration. When Trio Wanderer were brought back for a third bow − each given with a sense of respectful routine – they ought to have offered an encore. And, almost surprisingly, they duly did. They sat down and Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian turned to the audience and announced the Haydn. His serious tone and heavy French accent, I could not help imagining, was more a warning than an invitation.

It was fast, bubbling, impudent Haydn but I could not help taking the offer of the ‘Gypsy Rondo’ more as an apology, for what I will opine to be not an underwhelming or lacklustre performance but a programme well-played but miscalculated.

I look forward to catching Trio Wanderer maybe one evening, instead. When they may be playing on escargots and Bordeaux rather than English croissants and college coffee!

Richard Amey

See Strings Attached Music’s website for the dates of next season