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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Café Music
Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (arr. Bragato/Bachmann): (Otono Porteño (Fall) [5:09]; Invierno Porteño (Winter) [5:50]; Primavera Porteña (Spring) [4:52]; Verano Porteño (Summer) [7:15])
Le Grand Tango (arr. M.Kutnowski) [9:07]
Paul SCHOENFIELD (b. 1947)
Café Music [16:42]
Joaquín TURINA (1882-1949)
Trio No.2 in B minor, Op.76 [12:16]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
It Ain't Necessarily So (arr. Bachmann) [2:49]
Trio Solisti (Maria Bachmann (violin); Alexis Pia Gerlach (cello); Jon Klibonoff (piano))
rec. 16-18 October 2007, Recital Hall, SUNY College, Purchase NY, USA
BRIDGE 9296 [64:42]
Experience Classicsonline

This is not a crossover album: it puts together some of the works that live on the bridge between classical music and popular music. The pieces here are accessible, sometimes even kitschy, but always enjoyable. The over-arching theme of the disc is the integration of popular and classical music, viewed from different angles by four composers.

Astor Piazzolla needs no introduction. The creator and exclusive owner of Tango Nuevo, inimitable and unrivalled in his kingdom, he knew the spells 'to bewitch the mind and ensnare the senses'. There is no single way to play Piazzolla. The performance of Trio Solisti is splendid. I am, probably, too imprinted on the recordings by The New Tango Quintet lead by Piazzolla himself. So, what I miss the most is the abrasive, three-pack-a-day violin of Fernando Suárez Paz. Maria Bachmann's violin sings like a phoenix, its heart-open and pulsing, but sometimes I get the impression of well-dressed gentlemen impersonating a chorus of drunken sailors: their voices are just too operatic. Again, I have no right to complain: everybody brings his own character to Piazzolla's music.

What I didn't like is that the sound effects - all those knocks and "critters" - seem more learned than natural, and they lack variety. But this is really a very minor issue. From the beginning to the end, the music grips you. The judgment of tempo, dynamics, expression, accents - cannot be bettered. Every piano note is three-dimensional and put in the right place like a brick in a well-built building. The cello is never in the third place: this is a genuine trio of equals. I loved the cello's part in the porteño pieces: it took the role of Piazzolla's bandoneón and played it with great conviction.

The disc starts with the four "Seasons of Buenos Aires" - which are much more about Buenos Aires than about the seasons. Porteño in Spanish refers to a person from a port city, and is usually applied to Buenos Aires and its inhabitants. This is music for your bad days, when you wish to hide inside your mind and make it dark. This is music of long knives in narrow streets, of dirty dances and dark passions. This is what you can sometimes find in Brahms - ah, if he only knew tango! It can be limited, predictable, shamelessly sentimental, but then it's the best sentimental music in the world. This is music to listen to when you are alone and need empathy, but not consoling - virile, even aggressive. It might be too much if taken in a big gulp. All four "Seasons of Buenos Aires" heard together massage more or less the same pressure points. But, then, Piazzolla did not conceive them as a suite, and some performers pick them individually, or interleave with more lyric pieces. 

Le Grand Tango
is less intense and allows you to breathe normally. I glimpse a structural resemblance with Beethoven's Die Große Fuge - maybe the name is not just a coincidence? Yo-Yo Ma's version ("Soul of the Tango" on Sony) has the air of a stream of consciousness: wiser, older, reminiscence-like, even dragging sometimes. Trio Solisti play with ardent, youthful push. This sharper presentation may help to give a grasp of the structure of this long piece, but sometimes their intensity is tiring. Le Grand Tango was initially written for cello, but there are moments when the cello lacks voice in the upper register. Gidon Kremer ("Hommage A Piazzolla" on Nonesuch) has the opposite problem: his violin is all soaring high, no base. The arrangement used by Trio Solisti joins the forces of cello and violin and thus gives you the best of the two worlds. Alas, here again, their "special effects" are somewhat monotonous.

It's a pity they did not include some lower-voltage Piazzolla in the program. This could help to dissolve the impression that Piazzolla is all about a short ride on an electric chair.

The second half of the disc is very different. With Paul Schoenfield's Café Music we enter the cinematographic world of Charlie Chaplin. Imagine a pianist in a restaurant, entertaining the public with a ragtime - Benny Goodman's Opus Half would be the closest cousin. He starts improvising, recalls some other songs, inserts hints from here and there, twists them to his own enjoyment, and probably completely forgets about the public around him. The second part is a paraphrase on a European Jewish song, likely a lullaby. You watch the tune move through a shifting sequence of Gershwinesque frames. The result, at least in this interpretation, is a bit schmaltzy, and reminds me of Perelman's 'Cinema Serenade' disc: do you put sugar in your sugar? The rag is back in the third part, with the restaurant entertainer going completely wild and throwing in a kaleidoscopic mix of styles - from Charleston to fugue. The beginning is a clear nod to Poulenc, but then you better stop looking for sources - just relax and enjoy the ride. The Trio Solisti obviously have great fun playing it.

What's also interesting is that the Eroica Trio ten years earlier recorded some Gershwin, some Piazzolla (even two of the Seasons), Café Music and Turina's Trio No.1! Are Trio Solisti trying to beat them, or just reusing a successful formula? Anyway, it seems natural to compare their versions of Café Music. Personally I prefer Solisti in the fast parts. First, because their piano sounds so wonderfully, stylishly tapeurish. Second, because they really convey the spirit of improvisation. One can almost see the restaurant entertainer pausing before the next twist: 'What shall I do now? Aha, take this!' With Eroica you still smell the sheet music. Plus, their piano is more distant and dull. However, in the slow part Eroica's melancholy is sincere and heartfelt, no saccharine, you forget it is 'café music'. I loved their slow part.

Now, to more 'classical classical' music: Joaquín Turina's Trio No.2. If you had wished Ravel wrote more chamber music, here is one for you. Fauré and Franck are not far away either, and the beginning might make you think you put on a Brahms disc by mistake - and still the whole trio breathes Spanish air. The first movement is highly emotional, full of elegiac yearning. The second is a light-footed jota, busy and gentle at the same time, which may remind you of Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain. The third movement is probably more about mornings in the gardens of Spain: with birds, and brooks, and the rising sun. Their interpretation is very different from, for example, the Beaux Arts Trio: where the Beaux Arts have a soft aquarelle, Solisti have a lush, juicy oil painting. The playing is unforced, and the splendid melodies unfurl like clouds in the sky - alas, it all ends too soon. If you don't know Turina's lovely piano trios, you owe it to yourself to seek them out.

The sequence is wrapped up by an arrangement of It Ain't Necessarily So. I was reminded of Jascha Heifetz before I saw in the liner-notes that it was his version that inspired Maria Bachmann's arrangement. After the impressionistic Turina we step back to the Broadway style of Café Music, and, although the song is a fitting encore, it looks a bit lonely. The trio should have recorded a couple more to give it some company. As for the performance itself, it is flawless.

The recording is first class. The documentation is exemplary, providing generous information about the theme of the disc, each composer, the pieces and the performers, though only in English. I will definitely look out for more discs by Trio Solisti. Hey, they arranged Pictures at an Exhibition - now that must be a treat! The name of the group, though arguably not the most modest, is well chosen: every one shines, and yet they blend with perfect chemistry - and better than the Eroica Trio, in case you wondered. They may not be as refined and as atmospheric as some other ensembles, but their approach works well here.

The disc, like a hall of magic mirrors, shows three worlds, and, unless you really cannot stand one of them, it will give you real pleasure. Start playing it when you are unhappy - and I am sure that when you are through, you won't remember your sorrows.

Oleg Ledeniov




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