Swiss three-piece conjure the spirit of their classical forebears in a buoyant performance at Queen's
Switzerland is known for its banks, clocks, Calvinism and manicured mountains. But, like most countries, it is keen to promote a wider cultural image abroad so one of its initiatives has been to offer a special Swiss Ambassador's Award for Swiss musicians each year.
The award gives the recipients a guaranteed tour of the UK and it was through this scheme that this year’s winners – the Trio Rafale – are appearing at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival in the Great Hall of Queen’s University.
Never mind about the Trio’s name – it has French origins apparently connected with gusts of wind which to me seems inappropriate for a trio composed of violin, cello and piano.
But what’s in a name if the playing is of top quality? I don’t have to wait long to discover that these three young players are indeed highly proficient with a fine sense of musicianship.
Their concert begins with Beethoven - early Beethoven, the third of his official opus one set of piano trios. As such, I am waiting to pick up on the obvious influences of the period, the most likely candidates being Haydn and Mozart.
What is intriguing about this trio is its innovation. How can a piece of music written two and a half centuries ago still be described as 'innovative'? To find the answer to that question, I have to put myself in the shoes of a late eighteenth century gentleman - what else would I be? - and think of what I would have heard at the time.
Beethoven is a young composer fired by Haydn, inspired by Mozart but impatient to establish his own voice. And he does this with a new drive, a new drama which is more insistent, more impatient, more aggressive than his predecessors but still within the bounds of acceptability.
The first movement of the C minor trio exudes verve and confidence, which is a new departure in much the same way that the plays and books of the 'angry young men' of the nineteen fifties were indicative of their era. I listen to the variations of the second movement - variation form was to become one of Beethoven's favourite forms – and the lines seems to push at the boundaries of acceptable 'classicism' of the period.
Then comes the expected Minuet and Trio - not yet the Beethovenian scherzo which would emerge as the ultimate trademark of the maturing composer. But this is not the stylishly stilted minuet of genteel society. Again, Beethoven looks for something new to say, to produce the unpredictable rather than the tried and tested.
The finale confounds all expectations, starting off with the same dramatic surprises of the first movement but ending with an avoidance of sheer bravado.
In all of this unveiling of musical moods and novelty, the Trio Rafale shows why it was the recipient of the Swiss Ambassador's Award. They are an exceptionally gifted group of players who play as an entity, reflecting one another's individuality within a group mentality.
Their understanding of the early Beethovenian style lifts this early trio into a different level of musical interest, finessing the musical contrasts, highlighting the dramatic shifts of mood. While respecting the classical mould of the writing, the Rafale adds a freshness that would have you believe it was the work's first performance.
This concert is a vehicle not just for this Swiss trio but also for a work of a Swiss composer, specially commissioned by the Rafale. 'Caprice' by Jannik Giger was written last year and so it is almost brand new. It is full of drama, like the Beethoven trio I have just heard but obviously the language is entirely different.
The piece feels like a collage of musical aural images, the Caprice capriciously shifting gear, changing moods, in the blink of an eye, referencing past musical linguistics but as if through a veil of sound.
Every so often, I catch fleeting glimpses of the pieces upon which Giger based his caprice – namely Paganini’s 24 solo violin caprices. These present comprehensible moments amidst a plethora of contemporary performance techniques such as glissandi of various durations, or playing inside the piano.
I wonder if such shifting sands as these are strong enough to support a viable musical structure. Is there just too much happening? Are there just too many colourful baubles strung along this line of musical thought? But no, I can follow the line of thought, the logic of these juxtapositions.
The Rafale engenders an excitement about the performance, and it is not oblivious to the humour of Giger’s clever writing. The Rafale produces that same careful attention to musical detail which had marked its performance of the preceding Beethoven trio. Here was innovation again, from a more quirky angle.
The commendable, harmonised book-ending of this concert with the second of the Op.87 set of trios by Johannes Brahms allows us to experience another contrast of style - early Beethoven C minor, later Brahms C major. If the Beethoven work suggests the dynamism of youth, the Brahms work suggests the solidity of mature age. How does Brahms do this?
In the opening bars I see a clue in the doubling of the main theme on violin and cello, giving a certain richness, a darker hue, to the instrumental palette. The melodic lines in themselves are more extended, intimating the broader experience of age.
While not exactly describable as complacency, I feel there is less angst, less soul searching, and more an impression of warmth about this trio than in later or earlier Brahms.
The Rafale catches this subtlety in the first movement and does not dwell overly on the greyer aspects of the second movement – which, like the Beethoven is a set of variations. The playing of the Rafale again reflects the demands of the musical era, producing strong tones overlaid with Romantic fervour.
The ensuing Scherzo and Trio movement contains some of the most light footed of Brahms' chamber music writing which the Rafale treats with almost Mendelssohnian delicacy and out of this grows the most sumptuous if most fleeting of the composer's many wonderful tunes. I can't help but smile!
If confirmation were needed, the final movement develops the undercurrent of optimism which pervades this entire work. The programme notes suggest 'triumphant' as a suitable adjective but I think I prefer 'contented optimism'.
The Trio Rafale performs with skill and musical acuity and its tasteful approach to the music in this concert speaks not of Swiss restraint but more of cultural understanding.
The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues until November 1. Find the full programme in our Festivals section.