What a great cover! In these days of bland, inoffensive cover
art, it is great to see something that really jumps out at you.
The ghoulish face is that of viola player Kris Matthynssens,
who is clearly an asset for a group specialising in the more
ghoulish of the chamber music repertoire, that of the late Expressionist
and early Modernist early 20th century.
In fact, the cover image gives a good idea of the approach that
the Goeyvaerts String Trio takes to the music of the Second
Viennese School, for these are austere performances, angular
and precise, and with the music's expressive capabilities always
kept firmly at arm's length. That approach is ideal for the
Webern, but both the Schoenberg and the Schnittke suffer, or
at least become harder to access as a listener. None of the
composers here, not even Webern, was a Modernist to the exclusion
of every other musical aesthetic, but listening to this, you
could mistake each of them for a fundamentalist.
The Schoenberg Trio is the main work on the disc, or at least
it is historically the most significant. It is the great masterpiece
of the composer's later years, and as such it deserves wider
dissemination. Written during his recovery from a heart attack,
the work is multifarious and episodic, darting off in a different
direction seemingly every few seconds. This performance captures
that sense of nervous, questing energy. What it doesn't do is
linger in the strange and diverse musical environments that
Schoenberg visits, if only in passing. Like the composer himself,
they are always thinking about the next destination. The energy
that this approach generates is addictive, and from the listener's
perspective a welcome counterweight to the anti-Romantic austerity
that otherwise characterises the performance.
There is a delicacy about the playing of the two Webern works
that is all too lacking from the Schoenberg and the Schnittke.
As I say, these are the most successful of the performances
of the disc, the rigour of the players' approach aligning closely
with that of Webern's musical outlook. The sheer precision of
the playing is palpable, the concentration on detail impressively
conveying the composer's conviction that every note matters.
Schnittke's String Trio may seem like the odd one out in the
programme, but actually it is a passable surrogate for a contribution
from Alban Berg. For many, in Russia at least, Schnittke was
the heir to Berg's art, and the String Trio is among his most
Bergian creations, consciously so as it turns out, as it was
written to commemorate the older composer's 100th
anniversary. Having said that, you wouldn’t mistake it
for Berg, it is too melodic, too tonal (if only transiently
so), and too self-referentially post-modern. That last word
evidently does not figure in the Goeyvaerts String Trio's musical
vocabulary, and they choose instead to play the piece straight,
as if it was by Berg.
The performance is not without nuance, liberal rubato for example
is used to shape the phrases, but it lacks warmth. Of all the
composer's represented, Schnittke is the one who really requires
both a Romantic and a Modern sensibility, and this reading leans
almost exclusively towards the latter. On the other hand, Schnittke
writes music that demands interpretation, and the broader the
range of interpretations available on record, the better it
is represented. The Goeyvearts give us Schnittke the Modernist,
which makes a refreshing change from the many, many recordings
of this and other works from performers who are determined to
cast him exclusively as a Romantic.
Like the interpretations, the recorded sound is on the austere
side. The miking is close, giving a sense of involvement but
little atmosphere. The balance is curiously top-heavy, a problem
rarely associated with string trios. But again like the performance,
the priorities for the audio appear to be precision and detail.
Those weren't the only musical priorities for the composers
of the Second Viennese School, but they were towards the top
of the list.