In 2004 Susan Tomes published a memoir entitled ‘Beyond the Notes’.
In it she chronicled the rise and fall of a touring piano quartet called Domus, of which she was the pianist. Domus had been notably successful, but policy disagreements drove it to disband. Out of its ashes rose the Florestan Trio - including Tomes and Domus’s cellist - and her book ended with an encomium on the superior satisfactions of this smaller, more flexible ensemble.
Yet here they are, eight years on, giving a farewell series in the hall which has seen their greatest triumphs, for the award-winning Florestans are themselves now disbanding. The players’ ‘career paths’ are apparently ‘diverging’, and, given that violinist Anthony Marwood is now a star, and that cellist Richard Lester has burgeoning commitments elsewhere, the explanation make sense. But is there an inside story which will surface in the prolific Tomes’s next book?
Meanwhile they have chosen to go out in the grand manner, playing all Beethoven’s piano trios over three nights. These works reflect the way Beethoven took what had been a mere accompanied keyboard sonata – with the strings simply embellishing what the piano did – and gradually turned it into one of his most powerfully expressive forms. Tomes once memorably observed that the pianist in a chamber group tends to be the player with the bigger picture in their head, knowing more than the string players do, and often thinking more radically. And though Beethoven cast the piano as the first trio’s centre of gravity, Tomes observation was richly borne out, with her silky, incisive playing exuding effortless authority and a wonderfully mercurial quality in the finale.
As we seldom hear the Variations on an Original Theme Opus 44, the Florestans’ account of this was fascinating, with the stark grotesquerie of the theme dissolving into an exhilarating display of free-flowing invention. And by winding up with the ‘Ghost’ trio they emerged at their finest, with the first movement majestic, the second mistily suggestive, and the finale electrifying.
No ensemble lasts forever, though the Amadeus Quartet’s 40 years – broken only by the death of one of its members – shows what longevity is possible. I look forward to the birth of the New Florestan Trio, with Tomes once more at the helm.