Music and Beyond: Vienna Piano Trio is tried, true and renewed

Vienna Piano Trio is Stefan Mendl, David Carroll and Clemens Hagen. Photo: Nancy Horowitz

When Stefan Mendl began his distinguished career as a pianist he did make a foray as a soloist.

But “I never had a strong feeling for it when I was on stage. There are some who love to be with others on stage and there are those who want to be a soloist.”

He is clearly in the former camp, having co-founded the famous Vienna Piano Trio which will perform in Ottawa on Feb. 24 at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre.

“Piano soloists are the most lonesome of all. Even when playing solo, I enjoyed playing with an orchestra more than a recital. I always feel better with others on stage with me.

“You have to be a very special person to cope with travelling alone and all this demanding memory work. You have to be gifted in a lot of ways to be in a solo career. I was very happy to find people who wanted to play with me.”

The trio formed in 1988 with Mendl, Marcus Trefny on cello and violinist Wolfgang Redik. There have been changes in the lineup over the past 32 years, but Mendl has been the constant presence.

These day the trio also includes the American violinist David McCarroll and the Austrian cello star Clemens Hagen, who joined in 2018.

In Ottawa, the trio will be paying Haydn’s Trio in E minor, Brahms’ Trio no.3 in C minor, opus 101 and Beethoven’s Trio in Bb major, opus 97, ‘Archduke’.

“For us it is a typical program for this season. We just did all the Beethoven trios in Italy. It is a Beethoven year, the 250th anniversary of his birth on Dec. 17, 1770. It would be surprising if it was not a Beethoven year but there is a special focus this year. And in Vienna and London have a special focus on Brahms too. We are playing all the Brahms trios including horn trio and clarinet trio and all the violin and cello sonatas.

“Haydn is always rewarding. This particular trio is a real sturm and drang piece. There are very distinct characters to each movement. We just love this piece.”

In general, the trio is trying to present the whole range of the repertoire, Mendl said.

“Over the years we have played a lot of unknown pieces from Classical and Romantic eras. We have, for example, recorded trios by Heinrich von Herzogenberg  recently and we also do a lot of contemporary music.”

Having a (relatively) new membership gives us a greater desire to come back to the core repertoire now with fresh ideas and new ideas.” Hagen is the most recent addition.

Mendl seems to just go with the flow when it comes to change in the trio.

“There has been a fair bit but every time it is a renewal. It is always a loss on the one hand but a gain on the other. Fantastic people have replaced the former fantastic people. It always gives new perspectives. For me it has always been very inspiring.”

He’s too modest to say he ‘leads’ the ensemble, except to say “I keep it going.”

Change in the membership of a chamber ensemble is part of the process. And the longer they are together, the more the turnover. It’s a fact of life and even death.

“The Borodin Quartet has existed for 70 years. None of the founders are alive. This is still a very successful quartet. Same with the German Artemis Quartet. The last founding member just left the group and it carries on. If the people playing in the group keep the spirit of the ensemble alive and at a certain standard then it works.”

When the founders started in late 1980s, Mendl said, all three players were impressed by the playing of the Alban Berg Quartett in Vienna.

“We wanted to play piano trio the way they played, with the same intensity and perfection and the same love for the music … even the same craziness. We wanted to do something very different from groups that consisted of three soloists.

“I’m not saying that this kind of ensemble can’t be very exciting or rewarding. We wanted to have a chamber quartet approach.”

In the piano trio, it seems logical that the keyboard instrument is the central focus.

Once again, Mendl demurs.

“In a way, yes and in a way, no,” he said. “There are three different roles in a piano trio and I have always found that violin is somehow the most tricky position. It is very exposed with all the high notes.

“The cello has the greatest span in the demands in a trio. A good trio cellist has to be prepared to play simple bass lines for a Hyadn trio and to be able to play the Triple Concerto by Beethoven which is one of the hardest things ever written for the cello.

“The piano is probably the most thankful part because most of the composers were pianists so they wrote fantastic piano parts and you are always at the core of a trio because carry through the line. You try to match the string colours and the strings have to match the piano colour. It’s only possible if there is a lot of rehearsing.”

This intensity is why Hagen joined the trio, he said. “He was so keen because he really wanted to give it a focus in his life.”

Mendl and Hagen have been friends for a long time. “We played together as a duo occasionally for almost 28 years.”

David McCarroll is, Mendl said, “the most gifted chamber musician I have ever met. He was so effortless, it’s easy to play with him which makes things rewarding. If there are no problems playing together you start from a different level.

“He is the role model of what I think a classical musician should be like. He is doing all the things that interest him. It’s more about the music.”

It occurs that coming from Vienna may place an added burden of expectation on a performer.

“I don’t know actually. I can’t say. This will be up to other people to judge.

“There are many parts of Vienna that still look like the days when Beethoven walked the streets. And there are so many places where he lived. He moved so often. We have 17 Beethoven houses in Vienna. Near to where I live there are many of these houses.

“What I love about Vienna is that it is a nice size, not overly big like London. All the important cultural things come to Vienna.

He says he happy to be returning here for the first time in a couple of years. This concert is part of a jam-packed tour of the U.S. with a quick trip north.

Music and Beyond presents the Vienna Piano Trio
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.