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Britten, Menuhin, Gendron
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Trio No. 5 in D major Op. 70/1 Ghost
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Trio in G major K564 (1788)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)

Piano Trio No. 2 (1928-29)
Benjamin Britten (piano)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Maurice Gendron (cello)
Recorded at the 16th Aldeburgh Festival, Aldeburgh Parish Church, 24 June 1963
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4134-2 [74.24]

 

All three of these performances derive from the same concert, given in June 1963 at the 16th Aldeburgh Festival. Britten had got to know both Menuhin and Gendron in 1945 when Britten made his British Council tours. Though Britten’s association with Menuhin is the better known it was Britten who played the piano at Gendron’s London debut at the Wigmore Hall. He also considered but never wrote a Suite for the cellist and so their collaboration was firmly established by the time of this concert.

This is a noteworthy example of Britten’s harmonious working relationship with two exalted string colleague partners though not one without some passing problems. Many centre on Menuhin who was not on top form and takes some time fully to warm up. In the Beethoven Ghost trio his tone inclines to shrillness and the conjunction of this with Gendron’s warmth and splendid intonation can be unsettling. Britten is rhythmically crisp but the effect, not least in the first movement, can be rather no-nonsense. I admired the sense of desolate simplicity that they bring to the slow movement; Britten’s sensitively weighted chording proving ever illuminating (as indeed it is to hear him at all in Beethoven). They do respond in parts quite graphically to the unease, Gendron being exceptionally tonally nuanced and expressivo in his phrasing – and it allows one the chance to wonder why, post-Marechal and pre-Tortelier, he was so consistently overshadowed by French contemporaries Fournier and Navarra. An attractive finale is slightly let down by a certain phrasal tentativeness as if, for all their rehearsal and experience of each others playing, they were waiting for someone else to lead.

One associates Britten much more of course with Mozart and he proves himself yet again here with some deliciously tripping playing in the Andante, perky but not frivolous, affectionate but not cloying, mobile but not too fast for precision of articulation. Once more Menuhin is steely and phrases rather stickily in the first movement but the finale works well – lithe and winning. For many it’s the Bridge that will prove the most alluring. This is a work Britten knew well. Back in 1931 when the composer gave the young Britten an inscribed copy of it the latter wrote that it was "a most interesting and beautiful work" and he performed it with his trio in 1936 and 1947 (on the last occasion with two members of the Zorian Trio). This 1963 represents his last performance of the Trio, which he valued as highly as any comparable work of its time but in which he had the perception that "a weakness is the restriction of the harmonic and melodic language." These things sound entirely subordinate in a performance such as this. The strings’ grim insistence and Britten’s treble-flecked piano add colour and determined austerity in equal measure, no less than Gendron’s sweeping phrasing and Menuhin’s concentrated, once more steeled tone, not always inappropriate here. The pizzicato passage in the Molto Allegro second movement is well marshalled and the sense of an almost salacious rhythm is excellently conveyed as is Britten’s gradual unfolding of the elliptical piano writing in the slow movement – beautifully suggestive. There are some ensemble slips in the finale and Menuhin’s intonation does come under pressure but Britten’s stern bass pointing is notable and the colouristic drama and increasingly confident rhetoric of the movement is splendidly conveyed. The moments of intimate reprieve toward the end – trills and withdrawn keening – are part of a comprehensively knowledgeable and successful performance.

As a recital one would, objectively speaking, have to rate this patchily played. But time and circumstance lend significance to it and most particularly to Britten’s Last Will and Testament playing of the work, by his teacher, that he’d known intimately for over thirty years. For that alone this disc is a valuable artefact.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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