REVIEW: Fournier Trio

Fournier Trio - Pei-Jee Ng, Sulki Yu, Chiao-Ying Chang - pic by Kaupo Kikkas

Coffee Concert at The Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Sussex University on Sunday, October 29 (11am). Chiao-Yung Chang (piano – Taiwanese British), Sulki Yu (violin – Korean), Pei-Jee Ng (cello – Chinese Australian).

Piano Trios, by Mendelssohn No 1 in D minor Op49 (1839), Joaquín Turina No 2 in B minor Op76 (1933), Beethoven in Bb Op97 ‘Archduke’ (1811).

Coffee Concert tickets buyers can’t say they never go home without a free gift. Usually it’s one from the 20th Century, music they did not know and underestimated. Quite frequently it’s British, but never is it tat to toss in the wastepaper basket.

Another gift dropped into their palms on Sunday and it was Spanish – and I’d guess probably the first such Iberian bonus in the history of this series. Joaquín Turina’s music brought an inspirational start to this new Coffee Concerts season at their temporary home (until late 2018) at ACCA, where one-off venue practicalities this time meant the trio played on the floor instead of the stage.

Chris Darwin is a semi-professional quartet fiddler whose entertaining ‘origin of the pieces’ programme notes so enhance the Coffee Concerts. He told me that Turina’s music is quite familiar among quartets in his world, which makes it seem astonishing that it has taken most of this century for the first of it to arrive on the Coffee Concerts public menu.

Darwin writes that Conservatoire training set up Turina at Madrid, then Paris where he met Ravel, Franck, Debussy and Albeniz. But Turina, and we, have the First World War to thank for his return to Madrid (with Manuel de Falla) where, as suggested to him, he began to admit his nation’s popular music into his compositional bloodstream.

The result is uplifting, dance and song-infused, and engaging with its switches of tempo and mood. The sun and moon, the food and the wine, the opera house, street market, bullring and football stadium are rarely far away. And there are one or two Ravelian glints.

Its inclusion could only enrich audience perspective of the chamber music world they explore in the Coffee Concerts. It was unexpected enough but, adding surprise, the free gift came borne from the East. Check, above, the nationalities of Fournier Trio, who take their name from the celebrated 20th century French cellist, Pierre Fournier – who taught this trio cellist’s own teacher during a concert and recording career in parallel to his fellow countryman, the more extrovert Paul Tortelier.

Tipped for breakthrough in a chamber music world now crammed with outstanding talent, Fournier Trio celebrate soon their 10th year.

They scarcely look old enough, although Far Eastern genes, as we know and envy, sustain for longer the illusion of youth. Each player has long hair in an individual tie-up. They carefully sit and wait a while after taking the stage before tuning up. They rather shyly leave the stage after each piece and do not expect second curtain calls. Ought we to have been sipping green tea, kneeling back on our haunches, and bowing back to them in gratitude? (Why not? It would still be classical music)

Ng is principal cello with London Philharmonic Orchestra, violinist Yu a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Chang has won top piano prizes in Munich, Dublin and at Leeds. All have simultaneous solo careers.

They have recently recorded the Mendelssohn Trios, among which the D minor is a prince. Chang led strongly from the keyboard, as she did later Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’, and at times I was wanting more volume from Yu and Ng in both works. But their Mendelssohn – especially another of his suddenly vanishing fairy scherzo movements – unfailingly put extra smiles on us after the clocks had gone back.

Amid the music’s overall fleetness, the Fourniers maintained an effective and slightly teasing sense of understatement about the unsettled atmosphere the composer requests in the opening quick movement, in which they showed an intriguing sense of architectural proportion. Their finale cascaded along with Chang subserviently accompanied but all were dynamically as one in the emphatic coda.

Their ‘Archduke’? They forced into a possible polarisation in our personal responses to their omission of the repeat of the first movement exposition. Those who find this glorious movement of prime lyrical Beethoven too long stuck their thumbs up.

Those, me included, who have been patiently awaiting the reappearance of this work at the Coffee Concerts since 2006, and who crave the repeat and thereby the length, felt short-changed. Putting my own self-indulgence aside, I feel the exposition, where Beethoven lays on the table each of his ripe, tender, welcoming themes, needs a second hearing so that in the development which comes next, we derive fuller insight and pleasure from his explorations around those first ideas. The benefit of that is the richness we derive from his final recapping of the opening music and the surprises he may still then spring.

Omitting the repeat plunges the listener into much stranger-sounding territory, in which we are more likely to struggle to feel comfortably at home. And I sense, because the music is so amiable, affectionate and inviting, that comfortably at home is where Beethoven wants us to be. By indicating a repeat, that is what he calculates. And when was Beethoven ever the slave to the Classical period convention of first-movement repeats?

Yu* charmingly afterwards admitted the Fourniers felt they did not want to outstay their welcome by making that first movement ‘too long for everybody’. Maybe in their second 10 years, they will ease away some of that eastern reticence.

Richard Amey

*She told me they had been introduced to Turina’s music only very recently by a friend of hers who was in a group playing one of his Piano Quartets.

Next Coffee Concert at ACCA (Sundays, 11am, opposite Falmer Station): Castalian Quartet make the first of their season’s two ‘mini-residence’ appearances on November 26 having begun stepping towards joining the company of the CCs’ favourite young quartets. Haydn, Opus 76 No 6 in Eb; Henri Dutilleux, Ainsi la nuit (is this the next free gift?); Beethoven’s late great No 15 in A minor Op132.

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