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Concert review: Aquinas Piano Trio + Sarah-Jane Bradley

This fourth concert in the Concerts at Cratfield 2015 season featured three works, all piano quartets and all new to Cratfield.

The first was Mozart’s Piano quartet in E flat (K493), the second of the composer’s piano quartets.  Mozart had invented the form, in which a viola is added to a piano trio (or a piano to a string trio, depending how you look at it), but abandoned the genre when his first piano quartet (in G minor K478) received a lukewarm reception in 1785 for being too difficult for domestic performance in the salon.  In contrast, at Cratfield in 2015, performed by the accomplished Aquinas Piano Trio with the first rate viola player, Sarah-Jane Bradley, the work was warmly received, and deservedly so.  The first movement, brimming with a variety of lyrical themes and tempi more typical of a Mozart piano concerto, was delivered with assured balance and playfulness, the quick witted, close-coupled dialogue between the strings set against a cascade of arpeggios and rapid scale notes on the piano.  The larghetto delivered simpler, achingly beautiful and intense lyrical interludes, in A flat.  Rounded off by a pacey finale, the overall performance was nimble, engaging and satisfying.

The second work of the afternoon was a relatively short piano quartet, again in three movements, by the prominent American composer and academic, Walter Piston (1894-1976).  The first movement barely paused for breath, and built to an exciting, sometimes nightmarish, climax, albeit sensitively rendered by the performers, and with excellent balance.  In parts of the first movement, but most particularly in the closing bars of the finale, the performers perfectly caught the composer’s sense of humour, so ultimately meeting with a warm reception from what might otherwise have been a wary audience.

The triumph of the afternoon, however, was Brahms’ Piano quartet no 3 in C minor.   Composed over 20 years (but firmly parked in a drawer, unfinished, for much of that time), the piano quartet was the first of three to be begun, in 1854, but the last to be completed.  This meant that Brahms himself had reservations about the coherence of the work (‘half old, half new – the whole thing isn’t worth much!’, he said), parts of which he substantially rewrote, even altering the tonality by a semitone from C sharp minor.   The first movement remains unabashedly romantic, the work of a tortured 20 year old; whilst the Finale is the assured work of a mature composer.  Notwithstanding the chronology of its composition, and the composer’s own reservations, the outcome was, in the hands of the Aquinas and Sarah-Jane Bradley, a cohesive rendering.  The musicians’ collective heart was firmly in this work, and their fluent, spirited and engaging performance won over the Cratfield audience.

Rachel Booth