★★★½☆ Viennese piano trio impresses whether playing ‘home’ or ‘away’.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
November 9, 2015

The Eggner Trio is a Viennese band of brothers who sprang to prominence by winning the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition back in 2003 and this current series represents the third time that Musica Viva has toured them since then. With two programmes on offer, the Eggners offer a choice of Robert Schumann and Dvořák or Clara Schumann and Brahms. Both programmes also include a ‘lost’ gem in the form of Dulcie Holland’s 1944 Piano Trio – worth the ticket price alone I’d suggest.

First, the players. There’s a geniality about the Eggners’ music making that most likely stems from familial ease. Their warm, lyrical tone is a far cry from the edgy, low-vibrato HIP approach of some of the other young Turks on the chamber circuit. The Eggner style is more akin to the great ensembles of the past with steady tempi and a generally romantic approach to timbre. However, they also smile and share little endearing supportive looks – a far cry from, say, the dour approach of older outfits like the Borodins.

Last night’s concert began with Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio – her sole essay in that genre, her compositional career supposedly a victim of her marriage and the need to support a family and emotionally high-maintenance husband. There’s a tendency today to regard Clara as a neglected master, but on the evidence of the trio it’s perhaps better to say ‘modestly talented’ 26-year-old. The work has a certain lukewarm charm and the opening movement has an easy-going passion about it, but despite a lovely second movement ländler and a long-breathed cantabile third movement (reminiscent of a song without words), it’s a bit of a pale imitation of Mendelssohn or her partner, Robert. Programme it alongside either of those composers, or even worse, Brahms, and you can’t help feeling the sheep are being sorted from the goats. The Eggners never really convinced of its greatness in a solid, though not entirely glitch free performance. With all four movements landing in pretty much the same tempo I’d be inclined to side with the critic at the time who wrote, “I did not care for it particularly; after Robert’s in D Minor it sounded effeminate and sentimental” – and that was the composer herself!

Dulcie Holland’s Piano Trio, however, is quite another matter. A student of John Ireland in London, the first movement has echoes of that composer – a certain Englishness, but not of the pastoral school. The other two movements embrace a folksiness a little redolent of a composer like EJ Moeran. That isn’t to do it down – it’s rather a special piece – and the Eggner Trio gave it a thoroughly idiomatic performance. The work opens with the first of many memorable themes, a discourse on the piano leading into a “serious conversation” between all three instruments. The jaunty second movement is almost a march with a rapturous central section beautifully played out here on violin and cello. The majestic finale rounds off a 15-minute work that deserves a regular outing and would be a good candidate for inclusion by a mainstream recording label.

If the Clara Schumann didn’t allow the Eggners to appear at their Germanic best, the second half certainly did. Brahms’ First Piano Trio is a 22-year-old’s gushing showcase (a real ‘hats off, gentleman’ piece), tempered by a 52-year-old’s more sober revisions. Either way, it’s thoroughly Brahmsian, exhibiting all of his vaunted strengths and, on the evidence of this performance, right up the Eggners’ alley. Built on the firm bedrock of Christoph Eggner’s technically top-notch piano, Georg (on violin) and Florian (on cello) were given plenty of opportunity to shine, and shine they did.

From the firm-handed, massive first theme – which weighs in at an ambitious 40 bars! – the evolving emotional tapestry drew an increasing degree of passion from the three brothers, their playing broad-toned but never sentimental. Excitement mounted still further with a mercurial reading of the goblin-haunted scherzo with it’s hunting horn motif seeming to speak of some dimly remembered gothic ballad. The Eggner Trio certainly got stuck into the movement’s lyrical Viennese trio. The lovely Adagio, with its piano chorales alternating with singing string melodies, featured a memorable cello solo before the finale headed off (perhaps surprisingly) in three-four time. Digging deep into their emotional reserves, the Eggners powered through the Allegro agitato to bring the work to conclusion in suitably celebratory fashion. On this reading, I’d be keen to hear what they do with Dvořák’s Dumky Trio in their other programme.

The Eggner Trio is on tour with Musica Viva until November 21.