The piano trio literature, distinctive among small genres, comes to us in two guises. Since the piano, violin and cello are the three most popular solo instruments, works for this combination invariably attract random groupings of big-name soloists who enjoy the camaraderie and lower-stress engagements.
But the literature is of sufficient size to sustain an entire career, like the string quartet, and so many full-time groups are out there as well. Thus, there’s an equal chance that the Brahms trio you hear on the radio today is being played by star soloists or by a group you’ve never heard of.
I’d never heard of the British-based Gould Piano Trio, which played Sunday at the Phillips Collection, although it has a fairly large discography. But this group demonstrated, phrase by phrase, what is missing when this music is played by soloists who rehearse a few times together. Pianist Benjamin Frith, violinist Lucy Gould and cellist Alice Neary have high-level professional credentials, including occasional solo engagements with orchestras. But what they produce, after playing for 20 years together, is simply extraordinary.
The only comparison that comes to mind is the old Beaux Arts Trio; the combination of jeweler-like precision and a musical fire that ignites from the first bar.
The two string players sport superb bow-arms that make the tiniest distinctions in articulation, in perfect tandem and always with clear musical purpose. Frith does not always balance perfectly against his partners (in pizzicato passages, particularly), but he supports or drives the rhetoric with understated virtuosity and startling clarity.
Though three musical personalities come through, the melding of the minds (and fingers) is on a plane one rarely hears today.
The program’s main work was by Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford, and while it is admirable for a group to highlight its indigenous literature, the Gould is simply too fine at this point to be provincial. It should be playing Brahms, Ravel and Schubert on tour. This was made clear in its renditions of the Haydn and Mendelssohn D minor trios; pieces we’ve heard 100 times before, but never like this. Celebrity groups cannot equal the musical excitement generated by first-class players building up an interpretation through years of exacting study and performance, however memorable this or that solo passage may be. This was the most satisfying concert I’ve heard all season.
Battey is a freelance writer.