In terms of balance, the problem in modern performances tends to be the piano's loudness. Last Tuesday, in the final concert of Andras Schiff's Wigmore Hall series of Brahms chamber music with piano, that imbalance wasn't noticeable, because Schiff played, considerately, with a light touch and discreet use of the pedal. In spite of which, in the most genial of Brahms's violin sonatas, No 2 in A major, he seemed mainly to determine the character of the performance with his gently billowing phrasing and affectionate dwelling on the first note of both main themes in the opening movement. The violinist, Erich Hobarth, played cleanly but rather drily - a more ample and luscious tone would have brought a more vibrant presence to what is the simplest, most contented of Brahms's violin sonatas. After all, a duo sonata is not a two-person committee in which individual personalities are eliminated. Both partners need to co-operate, but also to project like soloists.
Hobarth seemed less reserved once the fine cellist Miklos Perenyi joined him and Schiff in the Second Piano Trio in C, one of the least widely known of Brahms's chamber works. It has a particularly attractive, mysteriously shivering Scherzo, and before it, a second movement in the form of variations, which had the two string players digging away in a spirit of friendly sparring, pre-echoing Brahms's energetic Double Concerto.
In Brahms's Third Piano Quartet in C minor, Schiff's wife, Yuuko Shiokawa, took the violin part, with Nobuko Imai on viola. Despite Imai's one, incautiously vibratoladen entry during the first movement, the players kept themselves on a tight rein, and Perenyi's solo at the start of the third movement was beautifully steady and controlled. Surely, though, the Scherzo could have been a bit more dynamic, less proper, and Shiokawa might have made her dying falls in the wistful coda of the Finale a touch more affecting. Still, for those who suspect Brahms of gushing, Schiff and Co restored a sense of emotional restraint.
The same work ended the Barbican concert on Saturday evening, given by the LSO Chamber Ensemble - pianist Howard Shelley, violinist Marcia Crayford, viola-player Andrei Vijtovich and cellist Tim Hugh. (The three string players are Principals in the orchestra.) For sheer beauty of sound and blend they probably had the edge on Schiff's group, though comparisons between performances in such different acoustics are hardly possible.
The central work was Rachmaninov's Cello Sonata - more usually heard at the end of recitals because of its emotional power and heroic proportions. It's also very much weighted in the pianist's favour, but although Shelley broke a string. which he pulled out of the piano and showed the audience like a trophy, the Barbican Hall did a lot to disperse the torrential impact of his part.
Tim Hugh is a wonderful player, with a beautifully even, warm sound, but the effect wouldn't have been less if he had seemed to struggle a bit - the piano sounded too distant from the audience, rather like a recording where the balance has been adjusted. There wasn't a single ugly sound, either, in the very polished performance of Shostakovich's grim Second Piano Trio, written at the end of the War, which began the evening. With music which is so joyless, and whose energy seems like desperation, you might as well be as harsh as you can.
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