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The Aquinas Trio Cross-cut the Classical with the Cinematic at Kings Place

Haydn – Piano Trio in C Hob.XV:27
Brian Inglis (b.1969) – Piano Trio (2017, world premiere)
Schubert – Notturno in E flat D897
Schumann – Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.63

What’s the connection between a piano trio, popular music videos of the 1980s, cinematic cutting and cross-fading techniques, and aleatoric literary devices à la William Burroughs? If you are stumped, then so was I, until I heard the Aquinas Piano Trio give the premiere of Brian Inglis’s Piano Trio (2017) at this London Chamber Music Society concert at Kings Place: then, all became ‘clear’.

The titling and description of Inglis’s Piano Trio suggest that rhythm, movement and metric relationships are its raison d’être and driving principles. Divided into Part One and Part Two, the Trio’s two halves are delineated in terms of temporal divisions and relationships. The form of Part One is thus described: ‘[crotchet] = 60; [crotchet] = 75; Cadenza; [crotchet] = 66 ‘with a sense of stasis’; senza misure.’ I confess, I felt a slight sense of foreboding when reading this seemingly dispassionate, mathematical categorisation, but in fact there proved to be plenty of ‘passion’ in the work, generated by the rapid-fire juxtapositions, alternations and altercations of Inglis’s score, as well as contrasts between syncopated propulsion, rhythmic hyper-tension and disturbing dissipation of movement.

Inglis’s materials are eclectic and at times combative. He draws on gestures from diverse genres – jazz, the neo-baroque, Palm Court light music, to name but a few of the voices which jar against, superimpose upon, and fade into each other – and incorporates direct quotation (though I struggled to discern these on this single hearing), from piano trios by both Robert and Clara Schumann, Charles Alkan and Cécile Chamanade. (Perhaps the gender ‘inclusiveness’ might be thought to match the ‘democracy’ with which the varied styles and languages are treated …).

At the start of Part One, a swinging beat came up against violinist Ruth Rogers jazzy, double-stopped riff, before cellist Katherine Jenkinson’s lyrical interruption gained ‘control’, supported by pianist Martin Cousin’s softly pulsing beats, only to be swept aside by the violin’s aggressive pizzicatos which invited the other instruments to join in the growing turmoil. This relentless hyperactivity, change and interchange challenges the ear’s ability to take in diversity and detail, and after a strong surge of sound and energy, it was almost a relief when Cousin’s prepared piano gestures seemed to quieten Rogers’ stratospheric chattering and the frantic energy dissolved into quietude, the tension imperceptibly lessening into stillness and silence.

Part Two seemed to me largely to repeat the argumentative dialogues of the first Part, though this time there was an increase, rather than slowing, of velocity. After a while, I had the impression of a musical tennis match with the players batting the musical material back and forth, courteously at first, then with growing aggression, and getting caught up in scraps which escalated into heated arguments which needed to be adjudicated by the authoritative piano-referee. But, Inglis did add new interest in the second part and introduced extremes of texture and colour, asking Jenkinson to bounce her bow high off the string creating a stabbing effect, and both strings to pitch glissandi shrieks against the piano’s low, intoning pedal, and, at the close, to place pressure on the strings behind the nut, in the peg-box.

The Aquinas Piano Trio gave a committed performance and seemed to enjoy the protean, acrobatic argumentativeness of the music. But, I wasn’t convinced that Inglis had brought together his many parts into a coherent whole: then again, maybe that was the point?

Inglis’s new work was the Aquinas Trio’s lone diversion from more ‘conventional’ classical fare in this recital, which marked the beginning of a three-part series exploring Robert Schumann’s three piano trios. The concert began with Haydn’s C major trio HobXV:27 in which the brightness and fullness of the string sound, and Cousin’s sparkling piano melody, made the opening bars of the Allegro attention-grabbing and vibrant. Cousin breezed through Haydn’s finger-twisting runs and skipped through the octave passages (described by Charles Rosen as ‘wrist-breaking’) with an unfailingly light touch. There was a terrific sense of fecund invention, modulatory exploration and drama in the development section, and the recapitulation seemed to reprise the material with even greater buoyancy.

The theme of the Andante, presented by Cousin and passed gallantly to Rogers, combined an easy flow with a sense of poise or pride. In this movement, the cello largely doubles the piano left-hand, and occasionally I found Jenkinson a little too prominent in the ensemble. The playfulness of the Presto was infectious, Cousin again tripping briskly along with crystalline definition combined with warmth; the pianist crossed his hands nimbly in the minor key episode but brought a gruff stamp in the penultimate section, before the Aquinas Trio whipped up a whirlwind as they flew towards the final cadence.

The first half of the concert closed with Schubert’s Notturno, thought to have originally been intended as the slow movement of the composer’s Eb Piano Trio. It’s a substantial work and I didn’t feel that the Aquinas quite had the measure of its whole architecture, as the sections expanded and enriched, then halted and began again. However, they did balance strength and intensity – the piano’s chords gave stature to the strings’ opening theme, for example – with contemplative elation, and played with beautiful tonal richness.

After the interval, Schumann’s First Piano Trio offered the players the opportunity to get their teeth into a work of quasi-symphonic breadth and it was an opportunity that they relished, playing with a fulsome, glossy tone, technical accuracy, and dramatic and emotional engagement throughout. The three musicians clearly enjoy playing together: they are relaxed and communicate constantly – physically, visually and expressively. Rogers’ personal involvement with the music is apparent in an occasional smile; the rhythms seem to ripple through Cousin who is upright and alert; while Jenkinson’s facial gestures convey her unfolding emotional response.

 

 The first movement, Mit Energie und Ledenschaft, swept forward with a churning contrapuntal force, from the very first bars; the interchanges between the players were driven by urgency and tonal weight. There was a compelling lyric intensity and the ensemble balance was excellent; Cousin’s light interjections imbued the second theme with a refreshing airiness while Jenkinson’s low melody was richly sonorous. In the development there were many striking timbres and textures, including glassy transparency from the strings and glistening tremulousness from the high piano.

The dotted rhythms of the scherzo, Lebhaft, doch nicht zu rasch, were strong but sprung with a nervous energy. Rogers’s song-theme was focused and beautifully phrased at the start of the slow movement, Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung, and underpinned by the piano’s quiet elegiac depths. The tragic intensity of this movement was impressively controlled, Jenkinson’s entry heightening the rhapsodic power; and impassioned climaxes were effectively counter-balanced by more intimate episodes. As the music flowed segue into the finale, there was a tremendous sense of surging freedom and fire. I eagerly await the second instalment of this series.

Claire Seymour (28/01/2018, UK)

Review of Autumnal, CD of music by Thomas Hyde

"...Hyde is fortunate in that his music has gained the advocacy of several leading soloists and ensembles, not least cellist Katherine Jenkinson whose playing here is all that an up-and-coming composer could wish."
Richard Whitehouse, International Record Review (December 2012)

Brighton Dome Coffee Concerts, 18th November 2012
Aquinas Piano Trio

The Corn Exchange was different today. Sun shone through the great south windows all morning, the heating was perfect, the seats were arranged with intelligence, that is on three and a quarter sides instead of four, so that no-one was unsighted by the piano lid, and the spotlights on the players seemed to be warmer in colour than usual; at least so it seemed when the female players sat down in sleeveless black dresses to reveal golden arms and shoulders. And while I’m praising the Dome I want to mention the page-turner, a man whose name I don’t know but who has turned pages in Brighton for longer than I can remember, and always with the same reliable assurance. It’s not easy to do, and an uncertain page-turner can unsettle a whole audience, which he never has. Thank you, Sir.

They started with Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque, a short piece in one movement that he wrote as a student. It’s simple, very romantic, ends with a funereal dirge, and it’s usually played in the expressive romantic over-the-top way that it seems to call for. The Aquinas did the opposite. Much of it they played quietly. They relied on the beauty of their sound and their exquisite phrasing to bring out the passion of the music. As a result, the emotion of the piece got in under our radar; they seemed to do so little and I’ve never heard it played so beautifully.

The second piece was Mendelssohn’s second piano trio, a big, complex work of fun and fury, with engaging tunes and extraordinary grace. Is there anyone who still thinks Mendelssohn is a light-weight? By the end of the first movement it was clear what this trio are about. Firstly, they play with extraordinary sweetness and delicacy. In this they are helped, for the moment, by the fact that the violinist and cellist were playing on borrowed Guarneri instruments from 1691 and 1693 respectively, but I can’t believe they wouldn’t sound the same whatever the instrument; they might just have to work harder to achieve it. Secondly, they play as one, not just with impeccable intonation and perfect ensemble, but in the way they interpret the music: understated but not unfeeling, emotional but not showy. The pianist, Martin Cousin, has one of the softest pair of hands in the business. He was able to merge with the strings and not dominate them, making the Yamaha piano as expressive as the strings. Perhaps it helped that it was a fairly ordinary grand piano and not the larger Steinway concert grand that most concert halls think they need to provide, even for chamber music.

By this time the audience was totally won over, the applause at the end of the Mendelssohn being enough for the end of a concert for most ensembles. And at the end of the concert we got an encore, which is not routine after such big works.

The Dvorak Trio No. 3 is another big work, full of tunes, and changes of mood, and the Aquinas worked the same magic on it and on us. What happens when an audience feels transported in the way we did this morning? It helps that they were a joy to look at, with youth and beauty on their side. It helps that they seemed very comfortable in front of us, that they move about expressively (on their chairs – they don’t walk about) as they play, that the two women, superficially alike with their blond hair and black gowns, reveal very different playing personalities. The violinist, Ruth Rogers, remains poised and elegant, with only the odd frown or raising of her eyebrows, while Katherine Jenkinson, the cellist, reveals every emotion on her face, alive with joy then almost tearful as the music changes to anguish.

Something happens at a concert like this that is more than the sum of the parts. It’s why recording will never take the place of live performance. It’s that we had an experience that we contributed to, and which we come out of changed, if only for a short while. Those who stayed behind in the Dome foyer afterwards for a few minutes found there was yet another dimension to the Trio; they are also really nice young people who have children and who drink coca cola. Oh well, no-one’s perfect (and I don’t mean the children – they were).

Dorset County Museum Music Society
Wednesday 19th January
Aquinas Piano Trio

There was a large audience at the County Museum last Wednesday to welcome the Aquinas Piano Trio; Ruth Rogers, violin, Katherine Jenkinson, cello, and Martin Cousin, piano. Although only recently formed, this very talented trio has quickly become one of the most sought-after ensembles in the country, and Dorset audiences in particular also know Ruth as the highly esteemed co-leader of the BSO.

They started with a beautifully shaped performance of Haydn's Trio No. 25 in G major, subtitled 'Gypsy Rondo' because of its exhilarating finale. John Ireland is not a composer often heard in concert halls, so it was very refreshing to hear his Phantasie in A minor, written in 1906 when he was twenty-seven. In this we heard some finely-judged exchanges between violin and cello, and violin and piano; this sweeping performance certainly lived up to the Phantasie of its title.

To end the first half, they performed Debussy's Trio in G. This is an early composition, written before Debussy established his own very distinctive musical language heard in pieces like La Mer. The performers gave a very polished and convincing account of this rarely heard work.

Camille Saint-Saens wrote his second piano trio in 1892, by which time he was internationally renowned as a concert pianist; so Martin Cousin was certainly kept fully occupied in this five movement piece. By now the performers were revelling in the hall's excellent acoustic, and we were treated to a virtuoso display of cascading piano arpeggios, lush string sounds, and, in the finale, precision accuracy in the fugal section.

In response to the very appreciative audience, they gave as an encore Piazzolla's dreamy, relaxing Oblivion. This was Ruth's last concert with the trio before taking time off to have her baby, due in about three weeks. We wish her well with that, and hope to see and hear her back with the trio in the near future!

(Russell Dawson, Dorset Echo, January 2011)

Grimsby Concert Society presents Aquinas Piano Trio

"Emotion and talent combine for a seamless evening of classical music"

The combination of three talented musicians and four popular composers ensured there were smiles on the faces of classical music-lovers at a recital by Grimsby Concert Society.

Aquinas Piano trio may be a relatively new chamber group, but cellist Katherine Jenkinson, violinist Ruth Rogers and pianist Martin Cousin have established a reputation for concerts overflowing with excitement. Katherine delivered an exhilarating performance during Haydn's Piano Trio No. 25 and, though this commenced at a stately pace, the Hungarian influences of the third movement allowed her to reach a climax imbued with pizzazz.  Meanwhile, Ireland's Phantasie in A minor offered an opportunity for Ruth to shine as she beautifully developed the melody, capturing both the melodic gift and the essence of romance.

Debussy's lesser-known Trio in G revealed the sensitivity of Martin's playing, there are some delightful jaunty and hummable aspects in this composition and his interpretation did not fail to trigger those smiles.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Saint-Saens' Piano Trio No.2, which he described as an atrocity and envisaged would drive listeners to despair.  However, there was little prospect of that from Aquinas. The trio played as though possessing a single heartbeat, each seamlessly and effortlessly developing the full range of emotions woven within the composition. Indeed, during the second movement, such was the look of intensity on the faces of our string players it would not have surprised me to see tears trickling down their cheeks.  This was an evening of sublime music and it's impossible to ask for more than that.

(Trevor Ekins, Grimsby Telegraph, January 2011)

Concert for Churchill Music at St John the Baptist Church
aQUINAS pIANO TRIO

Buy a season ticket! If the opening concert of Churchill Music!'s 2010-11 season is anything to go by, then for goodness sake buy a season ticket and do so now before the rest of the world realises just what a gem North Somerset is hiding in the shape of this tenacious little music charity, that pulls international standard concerts out of its magical musical hat as easily as you or I would make a cup of tea.

Opening its 2010-11 season last Saturday in their regular venue of St John the Baptist Church, were the Aquinas Piano Trio. Formed only in 2009 this dazzling young trio is rising fast and it was easy to see why.

So perfectly matched in their abilities and interpretation, the trio performed absolutely as one, creating ever shifting textures and colours in a perfectly balanced programme of Haydn and Dvorak, culminating with Beethoven's magnificent 'Archduke' trio.

Setting an exuberantly cheerful tone, the Haydn A major trio, which obviously indulged the composer's playful side, was performed with the heart warming vivacity that is the signature of the Aquinas piano trio.

In particular, the cheekiness of the last movement came shining through and I was joined by a number of the audience in failing to contain a quiet chuckle - something about which I think Haydn himself would have been delighted.

Dvorak's 'Dumky' trio - a musical set of fleeting thoughts (each called a 'dumka', hence the plural, 'dumky' - had me hooked from the very first bars when cellist Katherine Jenkinson set to with the passion and intensity usually reserved for the arresting opening solo of the composer's cello concerto.

Joined in similar fashion by pianist Martin Cousin and violinist Ruth Rogers, this was gripping stuff. Yet, there was also a lightness of touch in the group's playing that allowed them to not only evoke each 'dumka' with exquisite subtlety of texture and colour, but also its fleetingness. It seemed almost magical.

Filling the second half with its grandeur was Beethoven's 'Archduke' trio. This is a magnificent beast of a piece, not to be undertaken by the feint hearted and the Aquinas Trio were more than up to the challenge. With rarely a note out of place, their technical brilliance seems so natural allowing them to give themselves heart and soul to the music. It is this particular ability of the group that gives life-affirming freshness to almost every note they touch, and makes it seem that the music is fresh from the composers pen.

If the Aquinas Piano Trio don't go on to become one of the most admired of their generation I really will eat my hat.

(Alice Harper, The Weston Mercury, October 2010)

Aquinas Piano Trio at the Sherwell Centre in Plymouth

Accomplished, artistic, assured - these three words alone would warrant the Aquinas Piano Trio its triple-A rating. In terms of formation, it's just a mere toddler, but its rapid success is easy to understand.  Ruth Rogers (violin), Katherine Jenkinson (cello) and Martin Cousin (piano), all first-rate artists in their own right, have not only played together before in a number of different chamber formats, but they come over as such good friends, which makes their performance as a single musical entity so utterly convincing.

Great dexterity and a perfect ensemble were the order of the day in Haydn's Gypsy Rondo Trio and Mendelssohn's C minor Trio, with Martin dismissing the piano's bristling technical difficulties with real panache.  But there were also moments of expressive tenderness, especially in Debussy's fledgling Trio, where Ruth and Katherine's gloriously rich sound made such a telling impact.

It might have seemed odd to include a work written in 1997 in such an otherwise traditional programme, but Dorset-based Shaun Bracey's Desert Song fitted the bill admirably.  This highly evocative Dubai-inspired snapshot showed the hand of a skilled and practised composer in every respect, crafting such an eminently enjoyable and effective piece.

And had Martin Cousin not been suffering from a debilitating back problem (though not due to any bad-tempered camel ride), the trio would most definitely have given the large audience their well-deserved encore!

(Philip Buttall, October 2009)

Aquinas Piano Trio in Churchill

Churchill Music!'s latest 'find' is the Aquinas Piano Trio who performed a programme of Haydn, Debussy & Saint-Saens to a near-packed audience at St John the Baptist Church, Churchill on Saturday 9 May. Though recently formed, each member of the trio brings a wealth of experience, and it is evidently a match made in heaven. Ruth Rogers (violin) and Katherine Jenkinson (cello) played with relaxed and effortless musicality, supported by virtuosically meticulous piano playing from Martin Cousin. Listening to this trio performing as one, I couldn't help thinking of the great violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin whose technique was so relaxed that every last drop of his musical soul was shared with his audience via the music. It was almost as if the Aquinas Trio was performing with us, not for us.

The programme was carefully chosen and suited the group (and the audience) beautifully. Haydn's "Gypsy Rondo" trio was as gleefully spirited as its title suggests, with the final movement being such a delightful romp that one couldn't help but grin from ear to ear. Next came an early work by Debussy in which the myriad of experimental musical devices, which occupied the young composer, were sensitively dealt with by the Aquinas. After the interval we were treated to Saint-Saens' second piano trio - an exemplary canvas for the musician's art, showcasing everything from broad-brush romantic schmaltz to meticulous counterpoint, and from delicate graceful lines, to complex interplay between the instruments. Totally in command of the considerable technical demands of the piece, the Aquinas launched themselves into it with maximum musical commitment and the result was breathtaking.

Rarely does one come across a group so relaxed and (rightly) confident in their technical abilities that they are able to focus so completely on the soul of the music. The Aquinas Piano Trio is one such group who not only satify the musical longings of the scores they play, but bring themselves closer to their audience; an audience which is surely set to grow as these young prize-winning stars take the stage with vitality and exuberance, as a Trio.

Bravo Churchill Music! on a fabulous find.

(Alice Harper, May 2009)

Aquinas Piano Trio in Derby

The opening movement of Haydn's 'Gypsy Rondo' Trio was both lively and graceful. The players found a nice flowing tempo for the second movement, and attacked the rondo finale itself with tremendous gusto.

There was both vigour and delicacy in the first movement of the Ravel Trio, and needle-sharp precision in the scherzo, while the overall arc of the Passacaille third movement was nicely shaped.

Saint-Saëns' Trio No 2 was a refreshingly enterprising choice for the final work. With its five-movement structure, including one in quintuple time, it's a fascinating blend of the traditional and the exploratory. The Aquinas Trio brought clarity to the first movement, found the elegance in the fourth movement's waltz rhythms, and dispatched the fugue at the heart of the finale with great agility.

(Mike Wheeler, December 2008)