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Northern Lights – Jeremy Siepmann interviews Simon Crawford-Phillips of the Kungsbacka Trio

August 16, 2011

Simon Crawford-Phillips

Like all the best ensembles, the Kungsbacka Piano Trio was founded on friendship. And it shows. Chamber music itself has been famously described as ‘the music of friends’. Yet it can test as well as celebrate friendship, requiring not only personal chemistry but a degree of diplomacy, and the flexibility to perceive compromise as a gain, not a loss. It begets a particular kind of wisdom that can elude the soloist for life. It has its source in mutual respect, but the air it breathes is joy. For many, it is the most life-enhancing branch of music going. Given its grounding in friendship, I was eager to learn from Simon Crawford-Phillips just how the Kungsbacka Trio got its start.

‘Well, back in 1996, I think it was, Malin, the violinist, and I met at a festival in the very north of Scotland, where we were asked by the artistic director to play a sonata program. Happily, it went well, and she then asked us to form an ensemble for the following year. So Malin, who’d grown up in Sweden with Jesper, the cellist, asked him to join us, and in preparation for this festival, we played a trio concert in Malin’s hometown, Kungsbacka, which is how we got our name. Quite unbeknownst to us, someone in the audience put us forward for a national competition, for which you had to be nominated. We went, we won it, and with it a tour of Sweden—which was great, but we had no repertoire. So we set to work intensively playing trios, one thing led to another, and here we are!’

And what is the range of their repertoire now? How far have they grown and diversified? ‘It’s not just our repertoire. The trio itself is diversified. Malin and I live in Stockholm and Jesper lives in London, so our work is intensely focused on periods of touring and recording. I think we’ve now covered virtually all of the standard repertoire—about fifteen of the Haydn trios, all of the Mozarts, all the Beethovens, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich…and for some time we’ve also been exploring some of the lesser-known composers, as well as commissioning new works, both in Sweden and the UK—and abroad, in fact.’

So is the piano trio alive and well in the 21st century? ‘Absolutely. It often saddens me that there are some wonderful composers in the earlier part of the 20th century who didn’t write piano trios—Bartók, for instance—but now there are some wonderful people writing them. People like Kurtág, Mark Anthony Turnage, James MacMillan…and I understand there are some very substantial trios by American composers which we still have to explore. There seems to be a real rebirth of interest. But it’s a tricky combination, and that doesn’t always make it an easy choice.’

A tricky combination. Is there something about the medium itself which is intrinsically challenging? Why are truly great piano trios so much scarcer than great string quartets? ‘It is challenging. Certainly. Of course string quartets are immensely challenging too, but in a different way. One of the things that make the piano trio so special is that it has elements where the three players are asked to be as homogenous as one tries to be in a quartet, but also as free and soloistic, in a good sense, as one can. These two contrasting roles are not so evident in every kind of chamber music. In piano quartets or quintets, for instance, composers tend to pit the pianist against the string players much more than they do in a piano trio. One of the very real challenges of the medium is precisely this sort of dipping in and out of these two roles at lightning speed.’

What are a few of Crawford-Phillips’s favourite piano trios and what sets them apart from the others—in terms specifically of their use of the medium, their very ‘trio-ness’? ‘Well I think the Schubert trios are absolute perfection, but I also think immediately of the Ravel trio. I almost want to have the front page of that up in a frame, on a wall, because I think it’s such a complete and utter masterpiece. He takes all three instruments to their extremes, with the most amazing imagination, and of course the music itself is just extraordinary. That piece is a bit of an Everest for me. And it’s also a very special piece in terms of that “trio-ness” you mention.’

And the Haydn trios? Would it be in any way fair to suggest that most of them are wonderful music without necessarily being good trios? Where, in most, for instance, is there any sign of that ‘liberation of the cello’ that we find in the string quartets? ‘One problem here, I think, is that we use this word “trio” as a kind of umbrella term for 200 years worth of music, whereas it’s meant very different things at different stages. Haydn’s trios are still a part of a world in which sonatas are formally designated as “sonatas for piano with violin obbligato, or cello obbligato”, or whatever. But one does, I think, see the start of the liberation of the cello, certainly in the later trios, which we focus on in our new recordings. As for being wonderful music, they’re extraordinary music! It was a marvellous experience working through them and finding each one as miraculous as the one before it. We kept on thinking “Surely sooner or later we must come across at least one which isn’t at the same level”, but we never did. And even where the cello isn’t always liberated, the doubling of the pianist’s left hand actually produces a very special sonority of its own.’

Kungsbacka Piano Trio
left to right: Malin Broman, Simon Crawford-Phillips, Jesper Svedberg

After more than a decade together, and having traversed most of the repertoire, is there, I wondered, still a lot of discussion at Kungsbacka rehearsals? ‘I would say less and less. When we started, it was different of course. We’d all just finished college, and so we were all developing in every way—as musicians and instrumentalists. We also had a wonderful opportunity of studying with people together, so studying and discussing music was a unified thing from the start, and this made rehearsing and working together very much easier.’

I was interested, though not surprised, to learn that the Kungsbackas have evolved as an ensemble in ways very similar to their parallel evolution as soloists, growing together in particular directions, with shared visions of the kinds of things they want to project? ‘We absolutely do, and I think that’s got a lot to do with the fact that when we started playing we were studying with people who maybe pushed us a bit, who led us, opened doors in certain directions which we found very inspiring, and so we all three of us jumped through them at the same time. Having said that, I think one of the inspiring things about playing piano trios is the fact that it leaves us all free to pursue our soloistic careers, which we all do. And those other parts of our musical lives always bear very healthy fruits when we play again together. We all come back with new ideas from the other music-making that we’ve done. And we’re all very lucky in that we’re still quite open, even after twelve years of playing together.

‘There’s this rather clichéd notion that when you play chamber music you’re having, or want to sound as if you’re having, a musical conversation, but it really does feel like that. As so often, the cliché is true. We’ve known each other a long time and have played hundreds and hundreds of concerts together, and yes, you do notice how the others are reacting to the music, and you quickly learn to adapt your own responses accordingly, or sometimes opposingly. We still have the capacity to surprise each other, which is great because it adds to the fun.’

The Kungsbacka Trio’s capacity for enjoyment, their gift for having fun, is one of their most immediately engaging virtues. And no project has delighted them more than their most recent project for Naxos—a three-CD bumper crop of Haydn trios. ‘That’s right. The last eleven plus one. The late trios consist of three groups of three, dedicated to pianists and friends of Haydn, plus two stand-alone trios, so that makes eleven; and then we’ve chosen an early trio as the twelfth, to round off the set.’

And how did they decide on number twelve? ‘I ran a festival in the Wye Valley in January with about twenty or so colleagues and one evening we were reading this trio, which two friends were going to be playing with Robert Levin. And it was an absolutely extraordinary trio. I was totally taken with it and knew at once that this would be our number twelve. So. Quite a fortuitous evening!’

Different composers give different kinds of pleasure. It’s not just a matter of degree. How would Crawford-Phillips characterise the very special pleasure they derive from playing Haydn? ‘With a lot of these pieces we all particularly remember the first time we played them. Because that first delight in seeing his deviousness and his wit and his charm and his spontaneity, which I think is absolutely unique in his era, is an absolute joy. And the wonderful thing is that these pieces allow you to “rediscover” those moments over and over and over again. But it’s not just a question of wit and entertainment by any means. Many of these works are absolutely extraordinary—incredible. Take the E major, Hob.XV:28, for example, whose second movement, a kind of homage to Bach, is just breathtaking. I remember, as we do with many of these movements, just sitting down and gasping after we got to the end of it, or even in the middle of it, at just how extraordinarily inventive it is.’

And of course performers must tread a very fine line in projecting these wonderful, witty strokes because if you over-project, if you’re perceived to be underlining them, then of course you lose them. ‘Absolutely. And I think even those balances differ according to whether it’s in a concert hall or in the studio, where one can only hope to be as attuned to as possible. It’s one of the reasons we try so hard to listen when making a recording, because those elements of surprise and projection do change on repeated listenings. If you go and sit in a concert hall and are excited about being at a concert, then of course you receive this material in different ways.’

Are there aspects of the studio environment that enable one (or three!) to do things there that simply wouldn’t work in, say, the Royal Festival Hall? ‘Oh definitely. When you come out of the studio after three days recording you find yourself thinking of different things, and playing in a different way, not least where dynamics are concerned. It’s absolutely amazing how quiet one can and has to play in front of the microphones. And that’s a very inspiring thing. You’re constantly challenged by a new situation, which makes you listen to yourself in a different way, searching for ever more refined levels and varieties of sound.’

No composer was more sensitive or more resourceful when it came to refined sonorities than Chopin. Yet his lone piano trio, also recently recorded by the Kungsbackas, has been much criticised on those grounds alone. Is it unfairly neglected, unfairly maligned? And how does Crawford-Phillips rate it for ‘trio-ness’? ‘Well not very highly, I must admit. But as a wonderful piece of music, to come back to your point about Haydn, I think it is unfairly neglected. In fact I rate it very highly. And in any case, it’s wonderful to see Chopin composing chamber music. His approach to writing for these three instruments is certainly not as easy as in, say, Schumann or Brahms, but it’s absolutely beautiful music and it was a very great pleasure to play and record it. I think it’s a really nice CD altogether: as well as the trio, there’s also a two-piano Rondo, which I play with Philip Moore, and a set of flute variations. Definitely “the other side of Chopin”—but it’s much more than a curiosity.’

And what’s in the pipeline for the trio now? What are the upcoming projects, recorded or otherwise, that they’re most looking forward to? ‘Well we have things that we do every year, which are always very enjoyable. We have our own festival in Kungsbacka, the Chamber Music Festival which we run every August, and this is always a very special time for us. We’ve been doing this for ten years now, number eleven coming up. We actually don’t always play a huge amount of trios but it gives us a chance to collaborate in other combinations and play chamber music we haven’t previously done. Then we’ve got a cycle of the complete Beethoven trios coming up at the Wigmore Hall in London in the next eighteen months, in which we play all of the Beethoven trios with some short contemporary pieces to balance them. We’re also doing a Beethoven cycle at the Mecklenburg Festival in Germany, and there’s a Beethoven Triple Concerto coming up in Germany as well. I don’t know what the next recording project will be. We’ve been talking about maybe Martinů trios or even Fauré piano quartets, either or both of which would be fun.’

Whatever, whenever, the Kungsbacka Trio will give it their all. They’re that kind of players. And that shows too.

More recordings by the Kungsbacka Piano Trio:

Kungsbacka Piano Trio Biography & Discography


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