Trio Alba
Franz Schubert / Bedřich Smetana

Konservatorium, Bern, 2019-05-20

3-star rating

2019-05-25 — Original posting

Trio Alba (© / source:
Trio Alba (© / source:
Fährnisse eines modernen Flügels in klassischer Kammermusik — Zusammenfassung

Das Trio Alba feiert seinen 10. Geburtstag. Nach dieser Zeitspanne ist es nicht mehr nötig, dass die Musizierenden sich stets voll im Blick behalten. Da reicht mal eine kurze Drehung des Kopfes oder ein deutliches Einatmen. Es bleibt die Frage der Führung. Es zeigte sich hier gleich zu Beginn von Schuberts Klaviertrio, dass die Pianistin die Führungsrolle innehatte. Der Flügel dominierte über weite Strecken—unter anderem weil der Deckel des Instruments ganz offen blieb. Das wäre mit einem historischen Instrument kaum geschehen.

Die Pianistin spielte mit grosser Fingerfertigkeit und Agilität, sehr flüssig und mit einer Tendenz zu Legato und reichlichem Pedalgebrauch. Die Gelegenheiten, in denen das Cello in den Vordergrund treten konnte, waren bei Schubert eher selten. Am ehesten noch im langsamen Satz. Dann aber hörte man seinen schlanken, harmonischen, singenden Ton. Die Violine klang in den vom Komponisten angesprochenen Tonlagen oftmals etwas dünn, gelegentlich beinahe papieren.

Erst im Trio von Smetana konnten die Streichinstrumente auch das kräftigere Timbre der tiefen Lagen voll ausspielen (schon allein im eindrücklichen Beginn mit der Violine auf der G-Saite!). Die Balance stimmte jetzt—zum einen, weil Smetana im Hinblick auf ein moderneres Instrument komponiert hat. Zudem verstärken sich oftmals die beiden Streichinstrumente gegenseitig. Sie konnten damit dem Klavier die Stange halten. Insgesamt gelang es dem Trio Alba bei Smetana besser, seine Stärken auszuspielen. Das Publikum wusste das zu schätzen: der Applaus wurde mit Zugaben von Brahms, sowie von Clara Schumann-Wieck (zu deren 200. Geburtsjahr) belohnt.


Trio Alba @ Konsi Bern, 2019-05-20 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Trio Alba @ Konsi Bern, 2019-05-20 (© Rolf Kyburz)


Here’s another chamber music event that the Bern Symphony Orchestra organized in the big hall of the Bern Conservatory (“Konsi Bern” for the locals). This evening’s concert ran under the title “9. Kammermusik Bern / Himmelserscheinungen (Heavenly Appearances)“. This was not with a string quartet, for a change, but with a piano trio. Interestingly, and by coincidence, this concert featured two compositions, and both these compositions appeared in a recent concert in Brugg, on 2019-05-03, less than a month ago. The programs still differed, in that the concert in Brugg started with a third composition by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943), and compared to the concert in Brugg, the two common works appeared in inverted order:

The Trio Alba

The Trio Alba formed in 2009. The founders were all students at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz in Austria:

  • Livia Sellin, violin (* in Heidelberg, Germany)
  • Philipp Comploi, cello (* in Salzburg, Austria)
  • Chengcheng Zhao, piano (* in Dalian, China)

Ten years after its foundation, the Trio Alba has established itself in the international chamber music scene, now performing throughout Europe, as well as in the Americas, in China, in Marocco, and in Australia. For full details on the ensemble’s biography, career, etc., see their Website.

So far, the Trio Alba has published three CD recordings, each dedicated to one composer:

The Instruments

  • 1788 violin by Lorenzo Storioni (1744 – 1816), Cremona
  • 2000 cello by Urs Mächler (Holzhausen am Hünstein, Germany)
  • piano: Steinway model D-274 concert grand with fully open lid


Setting, etc.

My wife and I had the leftmost first-row balcony seats, the venue was pretty full in this concert. From what I can tell, most seats were occupied by subscription holders. One needs to book early in order to get good seats in this venue!

Concert & Review

Schubert: Piano Trio No.2 in E♭ major, op.100, D.929 (1827)

For simplicity, I’m just copying my introduction from the earlier review on the concert on 2019-05-03.

It wasnt’t before close to the end of his life that Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) turned towards the genre of piano trios. It is quite likely that he felt that this type of chamber music had been exhaustively covered by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). The confirmation for this: only after Beethoven’s death in March 1827, Schubert wrote his two piano trios. Piano Trio No.1 in B♭ major, op.99, D.898, was finished in 1828, published only in 1836, long after the composer’s death. The Piano Trio No.2 in E♭ major, op.100, D.929, dates from November 1827 and was published in late 1828, shortly before Schubert’s death. Apparently, it was among the few of his late compositions that Schubert heard performed before his death. The work has four movements and lasts around 50 minutes.

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante con moto
  3. Scherzando: Allegro moderato — Trio — Scherzo da Capo
  4. Allegro moderato (6/8) — L’istesso tempo (2/2)

The Performance

I may sound like repeating myself on and on. Still, I can’t refrain from mentioning this: Schubert (and other classical composers) could never envisage the volume and the sonority of a modern (Steinway) concert grand. The instruments at Schubert’s time had a much slimmer, lighter, more transparent sound. And they were more agile in their mechanics.

Today’s pianists may perform miracles in compensating for the heavier mechanics. However, they can never imitate or produce the sonority of period instruments. In solo works, this is not a grave issue. One can definitely enjoy classical piano compositions “through the eyes” of a modern concert grand. However, for chamber music, this typically has serious consequences for the sound balance. One may argue that with modern bows, metal-clad strings, etc., also string instruments have gained volume. However, in my experience, this by no means compensates for the increased sonority in a modern grand piano.

At the very least, the pianist should leave the lid half-closed. Here, it was fully open. The pianist (or the supplier of the instrument, or the organizer?) may claim that the lid must be open for the instrument to have “proper sonority”. However, then, one must face the impact on the balance, especially in the case of classical compositions,. Late romantic composers took the sonority of modern grands into account. Naturally, it was primarily in the Schubert trio where I found that the balance was severely affected.

Interactions, Control

It’s always interesting to observe the human / musical interactions within chamber music formations. This Trio Alba now celebrates its tenth anniversary. That’s long enough for experience and mutual familiarity to obviate the need for permanent, tight visual contact, but fortunately not long enough for “laid-back routine” to set in. Here, Livia Sellin had both her colleagues in her field of vision. The cellist, Philipp Comploi was facing the music stand, towards the audience. Nevertheless, he must have watched the violinist at least through peripheral vision, and for coordination with the pianist, he turned his head, looking over his shoulder.

Chengcheng Zhao could always see the cellist. On top of that, she frequently looked back at the violinist, for coordination. Through this, as well as through her playing (and the volume of her instrument?), I had the impression that she was “in control” of the ensemble. This impression may also stem from the pianist having a subtle (almost unnoticeable) lead in the timing: it didn’t seem to be the violinist who set the pace, who was leading the performance. Overall, I often had the impression that the piano was pulling ahead, which caused the impression of a certain (hardly desirable) unrest.

I. Allegro

It didn’t take many bars for me to realize that the pianist was indeed dominating and leading. For one, there was the volume of the instrument. But then, Chengcheng Zhao’s articulation and pedaling further favored a full legato sound. Her technical abilities, her agility certainly is admirable (Schubert’s chromatic, often parallel scales were very fast and very smooth). However, the piece would have profited from less volume and a lighter, clearer articulation. It’s true, in Schubert’s chamber music, the piano is dominating. But that does not imply that it should oppress the other instruments. Often, the cello was virtually non-existent in the soundscape, and a pp on the piano never really was.

Livia Sellin’s Storioni violin had less of an issue in making itself heard: the instrument exhibited a rather / very bright sound, maybe occasionally a tad papery on the A- and E-strings. I shouldn’t just complain: in the second theme, there are segments, where violin and cello formed a wonderfully subtle and harmonious duo,, e.g., when they jointly play the same, whispering pp motif. But then, inevitably, the piano entered the scene, and its “pp” felt like mf. But I concede that there were segments in the development part where the balance between piano and strings was far better than elsewhere in the performance. Also, I liked the use of agogics around the peak in a phrase, or at transitions. Just a little less pushing… but thanks for repeating the exposition!

II. Andante con moto

Only here, listeners could really start enjoying the qualities of the cello: a harmonious, singing tone, not huge, not overly bulbous. And here, at last, Chengcheng Zhao left enough room for the cello sound to bloom. When the piano took over the melody, it would not have been necessary to increase the p / pp to mf again. In the first part of the movement, I enjoyed the calm, the resting atmosphere. However, in the center of the piece, the music turns more dramatic (and ff), and I noted a subtle tendency to equate “louder” with “faster”. Apart from that, the slightly faster tempo after the fff climax didn’t feel quite conclusive. The movement also featured some very atmospheric cello cantilenas,, with harmonious vibrato and the occasional, rather fitting portamento.

III. Scherzando: Allegro moderato — Trio

In the Scherzo part (all repeats observed again!), was it just the more “classic”, more modest sound of the string instruments which made me feel that the piano again exhibited too much of “modern Steinway sound” from 100 years after Schubert’s death? Not surprisingly, in the Trio, with the appropriate, heavy sf accents, the piano part at times felt rather dark and (too?) handsome.

The pace in the Trio was slightly below that of the Scherzo. When the latter returned (da Capo), the tempo switch initially caused some feeling of unrest—it took a few bars for the listener to “feel at home again” after the transition.

IV. Allegro moderato — L’istesso tempo

It may have been the distinctly bright sound of the violin that may have made the tremolo on the cello in the first part of the L’istesso tempo section sound somewhat matte, slightly dull. But then the piano takes over with its virtuosic semiquaver runs that feel as busy as music by Mendelssohn! And when violin and cello take over these semiquaver figures, their part is just as virtuosic. And when the two string instruments join forces to respond to the piano in unison (or octaves), even the balance issue disappeared: the highlight in this performance!

After the modulation from B major to B minor, the pp segment might have profited from a very slightly calmer tempo, from a little less (ever so gradual) pushing forward? The balance issue returned when the cello took over the cantilena. The latter carried well through the venue, but the descending quaver motifs / accompaniment on the piano made it virtually impossible to hear the pizzicato on the violin. And the subsequent, repeated quavers were definitely not pp, but almost f. Overall, still, the final movement was clearly the best in this performance, with very active, virtuosic playing and alert sf accents.

Rating: ★★★

Smetana: Piano Trio in G minor, op.15, JB 1:64 (1855 / 1857)

As already mentioned: both compositions in this concert already featured in a concert a few weeks ago, just in opposite order. For simplicity, I’m just copying my introduction from that earlier concert review.

The “tragic connection” in Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No.1 in G minor may be unclear. However, Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884) definitely went through several tragedies in his life: in 1854, his second daughter died of tuberculosis, and just a year later, 1855, his eldest daughter, aged 4, died of scarlet fever. In memory of that daughter, Smetana wrote his Piano Trio (Klavírní Trio) in G minor, op.15, JB 1:64 (1855 / 1857). It comes in three movements:

  1. Moderato assai — Più animato — Tempo I
  2. Allegro, ma non agitato — Alternativo I: Andante — Tempo I — Alternativo II: Maestoso — Tempo I
  3. Finale: Presto — Meno presto, tranquillo assai — Più mosso — Meno presto, tranquillo assai — Più mosso — Grave, quasi marcia — Tempo I

Sadly, the above two incidents were not the end of Smetana’s sorrows: in 1856, a fourth daughter died, soon after she was born. His wife also contacted tuberculosis (she died in 1859), and in the same year, he lost a close friend. Later, in 1874, the composer’s both ears turned deaf. Fortunately, Smetana’s trio isn’t just all dark and depressing, but also full of happy memories about the deceased child.

The Performance

I. Moderato assai — Più animato

It was almost miraculous: from the first note (espressivo, on the G-string), the violin sounded entirely different: dark, strong, full of character! Livia Sellin used a fairly strong vibrato, but this fitted the music. Later, in the upper range, (to me) it was maybe a bit on the strong, slightly nervous side.

One could instantly feel that at the time of the composition, the piano had undergone a dramatic evolution—the balance issue seemed to have evaporated. Smetana often counterbalances the piano with the two string instruments playing in unison or in octaves. The Trio Alba performed with strong expression, with lots of emphasis and momentum in the dramatic parts.

The pp a due cordi on the piano (preceding the Tempo rubato) might have been a little more subtle. I found the melancholic, sad cello cantilenas very touching. The coda has the annotation poco a poco accelerando sin’ al fine (later followed by Più accelerando). Here, this wasn’t really poco a poco—rather, the Trio Alba instantly switched to a faster tempo, with almost furious determination.

II. Allegro, ma non agitato — Andante — Tempo I — Maestoso — Tempo I

I liked the ghastly atmosphere, the dry playing in the initial Allegro, ma non agitato. Only occasionally (e.g., in bars 39ff) the expression, the vibrato on the violin seemed slightly exaggerated.

We heard the Alternativo I (Andante) with both repeats. And with plenty of vibrato, especially on the violin. At the end of the Andante, second repeat is followed by a 10-bar transition segment prior to the Tempo I. That transition uses the theme of the initial Allegro, ma non agitato, but in 4/8 notation (the Alternativo I is annotated quaver=crotchet). So it makes sense to make this transition sound like Tempo I. I’m just not sure why I then had the feeling of somehow “falling out of bed” at the transition—was the Andante maybe not at half the pace of the Allegro, ma non agitato?

The Alternativo II begins with a Maestoso, but soon retracts into a soft segment, annotated p con dolore. It is full of mood swings, changes in atmosphere. I doubted that the soft sections really expressed pain: my initial reaction was “why don’t they indulge more in the idyllic scene?”—but then I saw that the score means dolore (pain), not calore (warmth)—and that made me realize that (in my view) the second half of the movement may have been a little too harmless, gentle: referring to Smetana’s biography, I think that this movement should show (more) pain, segments with loneliness, longing—and yes, contrasting warmth, memories…

III. Finale: Presto — Meno Presto, tranquillo assai — Più mosso — Grave, quasi marcia — Tempo I

The last movement followed quasi attacca. After the initial excitement, there was an excellent and atmospheric transition to the Meno Presto, tranquillo assai. My main quibble here was with the violin vibrato in the upper range, and a momentary intonation mishap. Finally, from my position I had the impression that the pedaling on the piano was at the upper limit, which may have limitated the clarity of the articulation.

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Encore 1 — Brahms, Hungarian Dances, WoO 1: Book II, No.6 in D♭ / D major

The audience was happy to hear Philipp Comploi announce an encore as “bedside treat”—or as “last dance”. The encore rather fitted the second description: from the Hungarian Dances, WoO 1 by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) the Dance No.6 in D♭ major, with the annotation Vivace. This is from Book II. Brahms published the four volumes of Hungarian Dances in 1869, originally for piano 4-hands.

The Hungarian Dances are among Brahms’ most popular (and most profitable!) works, and No.6 is among the most well-known among these. There are countless arrangements of these pieces (mostly just subsets). Brahms himself arranged the first 10 dances for piano 2-hands, and he wrote orchestral arrangements from Nos.1, 3, and 10. Other composers / arrangers followed suit, both for orchestra, as well as for a large variety of instruments and chamber music formations. The orchestral arrangement of No.6 (as well as the encore here, probably arranged for piano trio by Ries) transposes the piece to D major.

The encore didn’t fail to enthrall—such enthralling music, and the Trio Alba appeared to liven up in it, even though they didn’t exaggerate in getting weird in this! I count this as one of the highlights of the evening.

Rating: ★★★½

Encore 2 — Clara Schumann, Piano Trio in G minor, op.17: III. Andante

Philipp Comploi announced a second encore. This not only celebrated the Trio Alba’s tenth anniversary, but also was a reference to the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann-Wieck (1819 – 1896). Clara Schumann not only was Robert Schumann’s wife and one of the most celebrated pianists of her time. She was also a gifted composer, and a mother of eight children. Clara wrote her Piano Trio in G minor, op.17, her only contribution to the genre, in Dresden, in 1845/1846. The Trio Alba played the wonderful third movement, Andante — Più animato — Tempo I.

What beautiful music: very warm, intensely singing, and intimate in the outer (Andante) segments, animated, expressive, “talking” in the middle part—an excellent, fitting closure to the evening. It must also have been a new discovery to most, and—yes—another highlight of the concert.

Rating: ★★★½

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