Joint Forces: Amatis Trio with Thomas Quastoff at Queen’s Hall Edinburgh

Amatis Piano Trio, Edinburgh International Festival Image
Amatis Piano Trio, Edinburgh International Festival. Image

Amatis Trio with Thomas Quastoff

From: 14 Aug 2023

The Queen’s Hall
85-89 Clerk St
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Considering it wasn’t actually built for the purposes of concerts, the Queen’s Hall has surprisingly good acoustics for stringed instruments. This plays very much to the Amatis Trio’s favour. The ensemble, who were formed in Amsterdam, features British cellist Samuel Shepherd, German violinist Lea Hausmann and Dutch pianist Mengjie Han. They have already performed across five continents and 43 countries, winning various awards for their fearless, expressive recitals. 

Today’s show features Thomas Quastoff, who shocked fans a decade ago when he suddenly quit the world of classical music. The celebrated bass-baritone is not here to sing though. Instead he reads from extracts of real letters and diary entries by soldiers and families enduring the horrors of the Great War. It’s a creative pairing where Quastoff’s rich timbered delivery dominates the room as he dramatically relays stories and voices of forgotten people. Each excerpt is followed by a specially chosen classical piece which mirrors or mourns the sentiments of the letters.

Amatis Piano Trio, Edinburgh International Festival Image
Amatis Piano Trio, Edinburgh International Festival. Image

An opening recital is particularly harrowing as a proud under-age soldier writes that he is thrilled to head off to the Western Front and defend his country. It’s easy to imagine him striding toward his patriotic duty, chest puffed and rifle in hand. The musicians then embark on a stark and intense performance of Webern’s Three Little Pieces. It feels sharp, hollow and disjointed, capturing the boy’s energy and confused thinking. His next letter speaks of muddy trenches, beating off rats, gas attacks and watching a friend taking a bullet to the head. A severe dip in tone which brings an eerie silence to the room.

The show continues in this vein, featuring voices from history bookended by some stunning performances from three hugely-talented instrumentalists. Their assured and buoyant interpretations of some challenging compositions, including works by Shostakovich and Korngold, display a confidence and technique that feels well beyond their years. Schumann’s Abendlied follows a hypnotic reading from a letter home written by a British officer on Christmas Eve. The two sides call a surreal truce and exchange small gifts of spirits and cigars while entertaining each other with popular songs from the homelands. A very human but desperately sad event since all know the fighting must recommence soon.

Amatis Piano Trio, Edinburgh International Festival Image
Amatis Piano Trio, Edinburgh International Festival. Image

The music however bounds with energy and theatrical drama as the trio instinctively quiver and vibrate in time with the shifting rhythms of the works. They also woo the audience with an eccentric trait of maintaining intense eye contact throughout the empty beats and bars. 

A final written plea from a women’s movement winds up the performance. It’s read to the sound of a single note stretching infinitely from the bows of violin and cello. It declares that civilised women must never lose their humanity. Beauty is destroyed by war. The final statement quotes Neville Chamberlain: ‘In war there are no winners. All are losers.’

With this pertinent declaration intoned in Quastoff’s sumptuous, rumbling tones, a last mournful note finally dissolves into nothing. 

After a moment’s heavy silence, the applause is thunderous. 

With thanks to Malcolm McGonigle for this review.

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