trio anthologies in my experience are hardly two-a-penny.
Four-disc anthologies are heading decisively into hen’s teeth
territory. At face value the present issue might seem a useful
conspectus for the general collector. Look more closely however
and one discovers its riches are not really directed at such
are for instance no pretensions at illustrating the chronological,
historical or musical development of the form. The discs
do not contain any examples from leading exponents of the
trio such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann
these facts it prompts the question: just who then is this
set aimed at? With a generous spirit I might propose that
the answer is twofold. Firstly, since it doesn’t dwell unduly
on “standard” repertoire the set may usefully, and conveniently,
fill gaps for the specialist chamber collector. Secondly,
it provides an obvious showcase for a trio who have clearly
contributed to the Australian cultural scene, not least in
promotion of new music from the continent.
the other hand, wearing less altruistic headgear, the issue
might simply be viewed as a repackaging exercise; re-presenting
the group’s recent recordings that have become less marketable
as single discs.
cynicism aside what do we have in this set? As it happens
it opens with a disc of music resolutely in the category
of “standard repertoire”, consisting of the 2nd Brahms
and the monumental Tchaikovsky trio. Beginning with the Brahms,
and listening without comparison, the trio comes across as
a fine ensemble, thoughtful and straightforward in their
approach, but without an element of fantasy. I compared the
scherzo for example with both the Kalichstein/Laredo/Rubinstein
Trio (originally Vox but recently reissued on Brilliant Classics),
as well as the Beaux Arts (on Philips). Timings overall were
very similar, yet the KLR Trio’s treatment for instance is
quite different. Arguably they infuse the music with more
interest; the outer sections are faster, more spectral, more
will-o-the-wisp, contrasting with a gorgeously inflected
middle section, revelling in the richness of the melody.
Whilst I didn’t feel the Australians’ approach was invalidated,
they presented a more moderate and considered approach.
when I turned to the Tchaikovsky - comparing it to the classic
1960s EMI played by Barenboim, Zukerman and Du Pré - I felt
they matched their better known colleagues in passion pretty
much blow for blow. The EMI trio are recorded rather closer
and not necessarily to their advantage. The Australians enjoy,
throughout the set, what one might call a good, slightly
reverberant “radio” balance, which generally helps to clarify
details whilst allowing warmth to the sound.
the second disc and Hummel’s 1st trio I find my
notes scattered with the word “delightful”. I can’t pretend
great familiarity with Hummel’s seven trios but I will certainly
seek them out on the strength of these performances. Despite
being a keyboard virtuoso Hummel resists the temptation to
over-egg the composition with glittering pianism. These are
well-balanced trios, with interest in each part. If anything
no. 4 (on disc 3) was even more enjoyable, with the slightest
whiff of military manners in the opening movement, followed
by a delightfully grazioso middle movement, (beautifully
played here), and a light, scherzando finale to finish.
to disc 2 we discover that the “filling” in a sandwich of
three trios is an example by Debussy. It’s an early work,
completed in 1880, whilst Debussy was on holiday in Tuscany
at the invitation of Madame Nadezhda von Meck. Often referred
to as Tchaikovsky’s confidante and benefactor, it’s less
well known that von Meck also provided support to the young
Frenchman early in his career. Debussy’s trio remained unpublished
until 1986 when the manuscript parts were finally reunited.
Although not a fully mature score, it has a lot of interest,
since as Michael Brimer comments in his sleeve note: “Pianistically
the work bears little relation to the mainstream of piano
writing in France.”
Arensky’s first trio completes the disc. This is an altogether
darker work composed in 1894 in memory of the cellist, composer,
and for a period director of the St Petersburg Conservatoire,
Karl Davidov. A straightforward sonata-form first movement
is followed by a scherzo, quite striking in its use of a
rippling piano part offset by high harmonics in the violin.
The third movement is an elegy to Davidov, led unsurprisingly
by the cello. A lovely theme which returns at the end with
the cellist and violinist in poignant duet.
disc 3 alongside the 4th Hummel sits the splendid
trio by Smetana. Written during a very troubled decade, during
which his wife and all four of his children died, the work
appeared shortly after the demise of his eldest daughter,
Bedriska, at the tender age of 4½. The result is a powerful
and troubling work, the first movement building up to some
titanic climaxes, violin and cello playing repeated note
patterns with the piano thundering away on the top line.
Then, at around the 9:20 mark, there is a brief ray of sunlight
in the violin’s ascending phrases, before the clouds gather
again and propel the music toward a disturbed conclusion.
the third movement there is again a very “driven” feel to
the music, and whilst the final transfiguration of the theme
is pretty terrific - and very well realised by the Australians
- Michael Brimer’s sleeve-note uncharacteristically describes
it as: “… one of the finest things in all music.”(!)
it happened I did have to hand a disc, on the Discover Label,
of the Smetana played by the Trio Ex Aqueo; Antje Weithaas
(violin), Michael Sanderling (cello) and Gerald Fauth (piano).
Good though that is I have no hesitation in preferring the
Australians. A little extra speed, and tautness, in the outer
movements pays great dividends.
the fourth and final disc the Australian musicians stray
furthest from the well-trodden paths, encountering both a
twentieth century work that has unaccountably suffered neglect,
and two very recent works from fellow countrymen. Indeed
one is by the trio’s own pianist.
Bernstein came as a very welcome surprise. I was completely
unaware that he had composed a piano trio, although my shame
was partially assuaged by Michael Brimer’s note that reveals
that the piece resurfaced only in the mid-1980s.
the Debussy earlier in the set, it’s the composition of a
young man, written just two years before the outbreak of
the second war. Overall the 19 year-old Bernstein appears
to have been influenced by Prokofiev; indeed the second movement,
themes from which were later used in “On the Town”, could
in Brimer’s view “….sit quite comfortably within Prokofiev’s “Love
for three Oranges”. It’s a good work, with characteristic
Bernstein energy, especially in the finale.
leaves the two “contemporary” Australian works, and any fears
that they might “let the side down” in such auspicious company
are soon dispelled. Brimer’s work, first heard at Government
House in Sydney as recently as March 2001, has a rather earnest
but not unattractive first movement, followed by a densely
textured finale, which builds up quite a head of steam before
reaching a satisfying conclusion.
as the Brimer was I found Ross Edwards’ trio from 1998 even
more to my liking. “His belief in the healing power of music
is reflected in a series of contemplative works influenced
by birdsong and the mysterious polyphony of summer insects.” reports
the accompanying notes. Well I can’t speak for any restorative
powers but I can vouch for its interest. As it happens I
first heard the piece in a car driving to Staffordshire on
business … and before the letters flood in, that is NOT how
I usually review the discs sent to me! Suffice it to say
that despite the less than favourable circumstances, the
piece made such an impression that I mentally noted to hear
it again under review conditions without delay. When I did
so I was not disappointed. I am sure it would win over many
listeners unsure about “new music”.
first movement has a songful demeanour, with the feel of
very superior film music - a phrase I do not use condescendingly.
The second movement contains a four note motif very reminiscent
of Vaughan Williams - although annoyingly I can’t place it
for the moment - the strings rhapsodising over sustained
piano chords. The finale challenges the players with frequent
changes of metre and jagged cross-rhythms that they cope
there we have it. Whilst I am still marginally concerned
about the precise market for this set, I am convinced by
the performances and would recommend it overall with enthusiasm.
The trio are always reliable guides to this repertoire and
on a number of occasions … for example the Hummel, Smetana
and the contemporary works … rather more than that. The discs
are also well recorded and well presented, despite the odd
quirk here and there in the notes.
if this particular collection appeals … go ahead.
see also review
by Michael Cookson
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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