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Stunningly performed … intense focus and virtuoso technique … a magical sonic experience

Classical Sonoma, Abby Wasserman

The Gould Piano Trio, founded 28 years ago by violinist Lucy Gould, has been one of the UK’s most prestigious ensembles. Its January 26 performance in Mill Valley Chamber Music Society’s series demonstrated how richly they deserve that reputation. The concert, held at the Mt. Tamalpais Methodist Church, featured three demanding works, all of which were stunningly performed.

Members of the Trio: Lucy Gould, violin; Benjamin Frith, piano; and cellist Richard Lester, with clarinetist Robert Plane, first spoke from the stage about the challenges inherent in planning a program, quoting Fritz Kreisler’s advice: “First you play what you want the audience to hear, then you play what the audience wants to hear,” then played the rarely-heard Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A Minor, Op. 40, by Carl Frühling (1868-1937). Recently rediscovered after lying unplayed for many decades, this lovely work was given a moving reading by Messrs. Plane, Lester, and Frith.

The Clarinet Trio is suffused with warmth and charm, and was enthusiastically welcomed by the Mill Valley audience. Its initial movement, Mässig schnell (Allegro moderato), began with a lovely clarinet and piano duo that ascended and descended in curlicues of sound. It carried an undercurrent of sadness, yet when all three instruments were playing, was inexpressibly lush. The second movement, Anmütig bewegt (Grazioso), incorporated two dances in three-quarter time, the elegant Viennese waltz and exuberant Ländler country dance. The Gould’s sensitive playing in the Andante third movement evoked a mourning procession, with musical mourners sharing reminiscences, three together, then two; finally, the clarinet poignantly alone. The fourth movement, Allegro Vivace, thrilled with shifting tempos, complex rhythms and a vigorous conclusion. Instrumental balances created clarity for each instrument even in complicated ensemble. This clarinet trio has substantial worth.

Ms. Gould joined her colleagues to perform “Four Fables” by Welsh composer Huw Watkins, a co-commissioned work for violin, cello, piano and clarinet. By way of verbal introduction, Mr. Lester joked that commissioning a work doesn’t necessarily mean it will be enjoyable to play, but this one, he nodded, is. They have performed it a dozen times since it was completed in 2018. The four movements are not based on any known fables or fairy tales (the difference between a fairy tale and fable is slight: fables contain a moral lesson). Rather, the composer has said his inspiration came from Robert Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen (fairy tale narrations), which also refer to no text. The musicians and listeners, therefore, can summon their own stories.

The four parts, played in sequence with pause between, are sonically related to one another. They are mysterious, full of imagination and brightly colored. Their connection to one another is enhanced by similar tempo and pace, and three are marked Lento.

In each, Mr. Frith played with much damper pedal so that each line shimmered into the next, creating an atmosphere of ambiguity and mystery. Ms. Gould’s violin in its purity and delicacy rivaled bird song, and Mr. Frith’s cello lines were dark and burnished. Throughout, Mr. Plane’s clarinet line sang eloquently, and the piece’s harmonic structure was often unusual and always beautiful.

Each movement evoked further advancement into a mysterious territory. Low pizzicatos underpinned sparkling jumps in the clarinet and piano parts. In the Allegro second movement there was an instrumental chase that was almost palpable, then a musical slowing, with a dawning realization that one might be lost in deep woods. In movement three the clarinet line mounted thrilling arpeggios over sustained cello lines, and somehow this suggested (getting into the spirit) that the hero of this amorphous tale was being tested for bravery. A repetitive flutter from the piano line could have been a quickened pulse or the flight of a butterfly. Deep in the spell of the fourth movement the piece ended abruptly, without a resolution, as though suggesting that the journey is never over.

After a short intermission the musicians returned to play Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 in F-minor, Op. 65. Dvořák usually worked quickly, but he took his time writing these four movements, and they are complicated, with quick changes in pace and dynamics. Only the third movement has a single tempo indication, (Poco adagio), while the others are rife with rapid changes in pace. Such quick phrases and tempos challenge an ensemble, but the Gould players handled them with élan, although occasionally the cello’s sound was covered by the piano. The entire work is a wealth of mercury-swift alterations of rhythms, moods and feelings, with mournful singing of the cello part in the third movement and the glorious melodies from Ms. Gould’s violin all wonderfully matched by Mr. Frith’s glimmering pianistic touch.

Each musician played with intense focus and virtuoso technique to create a magical sonic experience.

It was a rousing performance, nuanced and also bold.

As the final notes faded, the audience stood to applaud with loud appreciation.

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24/10/2020