A supergroup to savour

The Arts Desk

The Arts Desk

Even in a large hall, very good things can come in small packages. In advance, partisans of the Wigmore Hall or some other dedicated chamber space might have feared that the Barbican’s main auditorium would turn out to be too chilly a barn for the intimate music-making promised by this supergroup. All-star trios or quartets, made up of soloists more accustomed to the undivided limelight, can frequently add up to less than the sum of their parts. And for those of us whose touchstone of trio genius remains the incomparable Beaux Arts – above all in its Pressler-Cohen-Greenhouse line-up – it’s precisely the absence of a single dominant voice that can cast the deepest spell.

Prior worries, however, proved misplaced. Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s piano, Lisa Batiashvili’s violin and Gautier Capuçon’s cello stitched their individual strands of sound into a sumptuous fabric. The suboptimal conditions of the Barbican did nothing to freeze the warmth of their interaction, or blur the lucid refinement of their playing across a spread of diverse styles.

This was an imaginative, and unexpected, programme. Dating from 1923, Shostakovich’s first trio might rank as a spirited slice of juvenilia were it not for the hints of grief and abandonment that darken its palette and even look forward to the tragic and elegiac colouring of later works. In its series of short, barely integrated sketches, we already heard the mutually attentive give-and-take between Batiashvili and Capuçon, turning on a coin between frolic and anguish, that enriched the entire evening. If Thibaudet had to take something of a back seat here, the intriguing bell chimes of his Debussy-esque accompaniment hinted at pleasures to come. Fragments of a darkly jaunty danse macabre barge into the trio’s stretches of lyrical serenity, like skeletons prancing on a lawn. Indeed, this periodically feels more like a mosaic of smart ideas than a unified whole. This account made the most of its youthful longing and coiled, nervous tension. as than a unified whole. This account made the most of its youthful longing and coiled, nervous tension.

Ravel’s A minor trio, written as the Great War broke out in summer 1914, also harbours hints of pastoral peace smashed into shards by some sudden crisis. The gorgeous opening theme (Ravel thought of it as a “Basque” tune) breaks down into a sort of artfully managed maelstrom of sound. Here the exceptional quality of Batiashvili and Capuçon’s alert to-and-fro raised their playing to the heights. Capuçon’s rich, mellow lyricism mocked the idea – as he did in every work here – that the cello has to play a mere supporting role in the trio repertoire. After the playful menace of the hyper-active second movement (Ravel called it a “pantoum”, apparently after a Malayan verse-form), the honeyed growl of Capuçon’s cello inaugurates a yearning passacaglia. It allowed cello and violin to braid their wistful lines into the most sophisticated kind of folksiness.

For both, their passages of frankly romantic vibrato and unabashed sweetness never made the texture cloy. A bedrock of sheer elegance – I would call it French, were not Batiashvili Georgian-born and German-based – always remained. Then, amid the all forte excitement of the finale (“animé”, advises Ravel), Thibaudet’s ominous, agitated chords gesture anxiously towards the gathering global storm.

If the first two works often offered a perfect showcase for the poised and sensitive dialogue between Batiashvili and Capuçon, Mendelssohn’s second trio (from 1845) closed the concert with an equal, three-way conversation. At last, Thibaudet really had a consistent chance to shine. He took up the string themes of the opening allegro and embellished them with swaggering, exploratory delight. Then, in the song-like andante, his piano rippled and darted around the yearning strings – with Capuçon’s cello majestically lush in this section. As for the third-movement scherzo, suddenly we’re back – close to the end of Mendelssohn’s too-brief life – in the effervescent teenage fairyland of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Thibaudet turned somersaults around the pitter-patter pixie dance and even weighed in with a snatch of Bottom-grade peasant stomp. The bouncing and bounding allegro of the finale also finds room for a sharp shift of mood, as a noble chorale theme breaks in to perform another of Mendelssohn’s dazzling scene-changes.

The respectful attentiveness of the three players at every twist and lurch of this myriad-minded music was a joy to behold, and to hear. Yes, supergroups can sometimes underperform. But not tonight. I even remembered that the firmest rebuttal to my preference for trios free of solo megastars came more than a century ago, when Thibaudet’s near-namesake Jacques Thibaud teamed up with Alfred Cortot and Pablo Casals. Last night, it felt as if the three amigos of the TBC Trio might approach that sort of summit: the contrasting encores of a Tchaikowsky song and a bravura allegro from the mature Shostakovich’s second trio set the seal on their commanding versatility. TBC: to be continued? We should certainly hope so.