REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Albany Piano Trio at the Lyons, York, 14/2/2020

The Albany Piano Trio

REVIEW: Albany Piano Trio, British Music Society of York, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, February 14 ***

GHOSTS are not generally associated with St Valentine’s Day, but orchids certainly could be. We had both in the Albany Piano Trio’s outing for the British Music Society of York, with the headily perfumed trio by Ravel and some romantic seasoning by Bloch thrown in for good measure.

The “Ghost” arrived courtesy of Beethoven’s Trio, Op 70 No 1, whose nickname it is (though conferred by Czerny, not by the composer). There was plenty of violence, as there should be, in the opening movement. But the players seemed to be ploughing their own furrows and ensemble was not always as exact as it might have been.

It was just as well that Philippa Harrison kept her piano lid on the short stick rather than wide open: she was in forceful mood all evening. Indeed, she was regularly more characterful than her colleagues, who laboured very competently but with intermittent ardour. But all three found the requisite ferocity for the coda.

The unnerving variations of the eerie slow movement were a little apologetic. Beethoven does not hold back here, neither should performers. But its demons were revived in the finale, thanks to the piano’s strong accents. They were finally driven out by high cello and low violin – after some skeletal pizzicatos – as the composer’s sardonic humour turned friendly at the close.

Victorian “orchidelirium” – a mania for discovering and collecting orchids – inspired Judith Bingham’s The Orchid And Its Hunters, an Albany commission that the trio premiered in 2016. Its five brief sections are vignettes evoking dangerous journeys to garner these exotic flowers from remote locations worldwide.

Their diffuse colourings suggested impressionistic water-colours rather than full-blown oils. They became gradually brisker as wide intervals and splashy piano chords became smoother and, eventually, more urgent, as if the flowers were under threat. The Albany were surefooted throughout, taking the changes in their stride.

Swiss by birth, Bloch wrote his only work for piano trio in 1924, the year he became an American citizen. His Three Nocturnes proved rather engaging, largely romantic and lyrical, though the percussive syncopation of the last one hinted at modernity.

The first movement of Ravel’s Piano Trio was the Albany’s best moment, its jumpy rhythms clean and its acceleration finely calibrated. Pantoum, which follows, became a volatile, piano-drive harlequinade, sharply contrasted with the chorale-like Passacaille. Vigorous piano in the finale suggested fountains spraying wildly in a gusty wind. This was all but a full-blown piano concerto.

The Albany did enough to show that they are capable of considerable finesse. Not enough of it was on show here, however. And they would be well advised to let their fingers do the talking in place of under-prepared, under-projected spoken intros. The Lyons is not a good place for speech.   

Review by Martin Dreyer