Millbrook Ensemble

Piano trio

Iffley Church Hall, Sunday April 17th 2016

Millbrook Ensemble

We are lucky to have a remarkable pool of musical talent to draw on in and around Oxford. The Millbrook Ensemble is a group of chamber musicians performing at the highest standard, and based in our area, and, it seems to me, exactly right for an intimate performance space like our Church Hall. We have previously heard them as a piano quartet, and this time we heard them as a piano trio and as a violin-piano duo. In whatever combination, they seem to produce chamber music with terrific flow and energy. We rather hope that when they come here next, they might be a piano quintet and perform Schumann's great quintet opus 44!

They started their programme with three short pieces by Frank Bridge, which are called 'Miniatures' but are more robust and substantial than that word might suggest, and gave the performers a chance to try on different costumes, as it were, in three theatrical tableaux.

We then heard violinist Louisa Fuller and pianist Charlotte Brennand perform the C├ęsar Franck Violin Sonata, a work of truly symphonic scope. This is also a rather theatrical piece, in which the violinist is sometimes required to declaim in free recitative style, as if a drama were unfolding - though the story is never explicit. Fuller is at her best in lyrical flowing passages, and maybe fell slightly short of the dramatic possibilities here, but her absolute commitment to the piece, and the subtle shaping of phrases and indeed of movements, was very compelling. She has a sweetness of tone which carries the vocal line of the music, and a beautifully controlled way of beginning and ending phrases, which persuades you that the line still continues when the violin is silent. On the piano, Brennand used our modest instrument to its limits and provided the necessary driving force and rhythmic punch.

After the interval 'cellist Rosalind Gladstone rejoined for Mendelssohn's Piano Trio op 49. This too is a piece on a large scale, and, I think, an unjustly neglected one. The textures are light and dancing in every movement, especially in the scherzo which is fully as fast and furious as any of Mendelssohn's more well-known scherzos. Throughout, the pianist has to get her fingers round an astonishing number of notes, whilst at the same time keeping up a dialogue with the stringed instruments; Brennand achieved this brilliantly, and there was a lovely flexibility and responsiveness in all three players. Gladstone played with rich warm tone and helped to anchor the often dense textures of the upper voices.

This was a well-chosen programme, and it was interesting to hear a solo violin sonata in the context of the piano trios. It made me realise that it is all chamber music, in the sense that everything depends on the communication and responsiveness of all the musicians. It is easy to think of the Franck sonata as a virtuoso solo showpiece with subsidiary accompaniment, but if we do that, we are missing a whole dimension of the experience. It also highlights one of the reasons why any live performance will be more satisfying than a recorded one, however great the recording may be. The music arises out of the conversation of the performers, but also out of their reaching out to the audience. When this all works well, real magic occurs.

Brian Todd