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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 120 (1923) [21:08]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Piano Trio in G major ("Premier Trio") (c. 1879) [22:54]
Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953)

Two Pieces for Piano Trio, Op. 95 (1931) [18:19]
Trio Grumiaux
Studio Toots, Brussels, 12-15 November 2002. DDD
KLARA MMP 036 [62:40]

This is stunningly beautiful playing. The members of Trio Grumiaux serve up tonal breadth, fullness, and ardour, all tempered by a cultivated elegance harking back to their eponymous model. Luc Dewez bathes the numerous ’cello melodies in rich, dusky tone. Violinist Philippe Koch matches him in feeling and technique, his tone perhaps lacking a touch of silver: at [4:38] in the first of the Jongen pieces, the sustained high violin note is vibrant and accurately tuned, but doesn't quite soar. At the Bösendorfer piano, Luc Devos is adept at the sort of fluid arpeggiation abundant in these scores, sounding particularly liquid in the Debussy.

Veteran collectors will know the Belgian composer Joseph Jongen primarily for his organ works - his Symphonie concertante was a Virgil Fox showpiece early in the LP era - so his Two Pieces will be a novelty. After a mysterious introduction, with the piano marking a single pentatonic line over string harmonics, the opening Élégie nocturnale moves into a more conventional, questing lyricism over intensely chromatic harmonies. In a nice episode towards the close, the piano voices a sequence of unstable chords over pizzicatos from the string instruments in alternation. The strings launch the ensuing Allegro appassionato with buzzy double-stopped chords in an intense, tautly driving rhythm, before breaking into flowing, contrapuntally arranged cantabiles over piano arpeggios. Koch turns his tonal reticence to advantage at [1:32], where the violin sings with touching restraint.

Fauré's Trio, written when the composer was seventy-six, is, of course, a mature masterpiece. At the start, and occasionally later on, pianist Devos turns oddly stolid, leaving us overly conscious of the individual chords rather than the rippling effect. Otherwise, nothing but praise: the players build each of the three songful movements in a single, inexorable arc, maintaining harmonic tension and an undulating line through the successions of modulations. Interestingly, in the unusual violin-and-’cello unison lines, Koch and Dewez keep their vibratos active. This tends to call attention to the inevitable pitch discrepancies, but still strikes me as preferable to the denatured sound which is the usual alternative.

Debussy's early four-movement Trio, once believed lost, was rediscovered in the early 1980s. Cast in straightforward harmonies similar to those in the composer's early piano works, not only is it clearly the work of a young composer, but, after the Fauré, it sounds like that of a chronologically earlier one as well! Guido Defever's booklet note cites Franck as a stylistic model, but the music's sunny temperament and disarming simplicity more readily suggest Schumann, whom Defever also mentions. In the first movement, the second subject's yearning aspirations even provide a hint of Tchaikovsky - is it a coincidence that in the summer of 1880, Debussy travelled in Western Europe with Madame von Meck, Tchaikovsky's patroness? The Finale offers a nice touch: the music simmers down to an apparent quiet ending, at which point buoyant, scurrying activity suddenly carries the music to a more unequivocally affirmative conclusion. The players, once again, build and relax naturally through the phrases, without overdoing the Romantic passion.

Vivid, immediate sonics enhance these marvellous performances: a slight volume cut will mitigate the close perspectives, along with a touch of plumminess in the piano reproduction.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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