The Milverton Concert Society never fails to provide first class evenings of fine music. Last Friday kept up this tradition with a top-rate piano trio, the Busch Ensemble, playing Debussy, Schubert and a work by Adolf Busch after whom the trio is named. The Ensemble demonstrates the true internationalism of music – pianist Omri Epstein and ‘cellist Ori Epstein are Israeli brothers and violinist Mathieu van Bellen is from the Netherlands. They have been playing together since 2012, and Mathieu’s instrument is a fine Guadagnini violin once owned by Adolf Busch himself.
The evening opened with Debussy’s G Minor Trio from 1880, written when the composer was 18. The opening bars showed us that least as far as technique is concerned, the Busch Ensemble are up there with the best – perfect balance between the lines, a golden tone and fine legato playing. There were hints in the piano writing of the compositional style which Debussy would develop later, but for the most part this is romantic music which falls very easily on the ear. The intense communication between the three players was obvious throughout the evening and their ensemble playing could not be faulted. The quirky Scherzo was played with panache and insouciance and the opening ‘cello theme of the 3rd movement was gorgeous. This was ‘salon music’ (I’m not being in any way derogatory here) of the highest quality, the lushly romantic tunes being played with real fire. The urgent, busy opening of the final movement led to an explosion of passionate playing for the first half of the movement. Then a series of spare, unison notes from the violin and ‘cello took us into the closing section, becoming increasingly fiery but played with finely controlled intensity.
Adolf Busch fled Hitler’s Germany in 1927 and settled in the United States. Although a contemporary of composers such as Webern, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and others writing in very ‘modernist’ musical idioms, Busch wrote this trio in a backward-looking way as if to say ‘the old methods can still produce some fine music’. The opening themes are lush, occasionally with hints of Brahms and distinct echoes of Reger. The dramatic passages were declaimed with great verve and faultless ensemble, the stormy and occasionally furious writing being played with amazing intensity.
I was most impressed by the precision of the violin and ‘cello pizzicato opening to the 2nd movement – it was as if one person was playing both instruments. As the movement developed we heard spiky phrases with forceful marcato followed by more mellifluous legato passages, all played beautifully with wonderful rapport between the trio. The start of the third movement wanders harmonically, with strange intervals and restless harmonies as if the music is seeking repose and consolation but not quite finding it. Eventually, after another fine duet from the two stringed instruments we were finally led to a calmer, more contented territory and a peaceful conclusion.
The finale is fugal throughout, constantly building towards a climax, but strictly following the classic rules of fugue writing. The occasional periods of quiet respite only served as launch pads for more robust pages, all played with demonic intensity and sheer musicality. This is a work I did not know before, and I will want to explore it again.
After the interval we were treated to one of the pinnacles of trio writing, the incomparable 1827 trio in E Flat by Schubert, who was tragically destined to die a year later. The Busch launched this with great bravura, revelling in the lushness of the writing and with great technical virtuosity and first class ensemble even in the most ferociously demanding passages. In the second movement a beautiful ‘cello statement of the opening melody was equally beautifully echoed by the piano. The final fortissimo statement of the theme by all three instruments was of almost frightening intensity.
The third movement starts with the simplest of melodic material and builds into a wonderfully sonorous fabric. The players wove this tapestry while keeping all of its threads clearly audible – I enjoyed the passage near the end where a lovely legato ‘cello line is supported by cheeky arpeggios from the other two instruments. The Finale contains some of Schubert’s finest piano writing, and Omri revelled in the swirls of arpeggios and runs over the solid string lines. The work ended with a gorgeous re-statement of the theme from the second movement and the playing throughout was of the highest calibre.
Was there nothing to complain about? Not really, but I spoke to another member of the audience at the interval. She is herself a professional musician of the highest calibre and she put her finger on the only possible caveat I might have. Technically these three young men are in the highest rank – their virtuosity is self evident. But it’s an occasionally raw, ‘in your face’ technique. My interval companion said that she would love to hear them play these pieces again in ten years time. By then she said their technical prowess would be tempered by musical and interpretative maturity and their music would be all the better for that. I had to agree – however it was a great evening and I thank the Milverton Concert Society once more for a musical experience to treasure.
Review by Harold W. Mead