Milonga For Three
Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
Libertango [4:47]
Ouverture [4:12]
Ausencias [3:53]
Milonga Picaresque [1:32]
Milonga For Three [5:50]
Los Sueños [2:43]
Sin Rumbo [4:54]
Street Tango [4:24]
Todo Buenos Aires (La Mufa [5:02], Todo Buenos Aires [4:36], Tango Del Diablo [3:15], Romance Del Diablo [5:35], Lunfardo [4:54])
Oblivion [3:48]
Ephyra Trio: Charlotte Bradburn (soprano saxophone), Vanessa Lucas-Smith (cello), Adam Caird (piano)
rec. 2008, London
FORGE FACIC001 [59:31]

Although saxophone is formally an orchestral instrument, I daresay nobody considers it as such. Like piano or organ, it can spice up a passage here and there. It can even have a rhapsody or concerto to itself. But overall its appearances in classical music are very occasional. The Ephyra Trio is a stable (since 2001) chamber ensemble of a soprano saxophone, a cello and a piano. I admire their decision to walk a non-trodden path and their perseverance on this way. And boy, how this decision was right: what a great new sound-world we have here. Composers, please, write for them!

We live in the times of a Piazzolla Renaissance, when everybody records his music. Soon it will be difficult to choose among piles of, honestly, not radically different albums. With half of the pieces repeating themselves over and over. That is not the case here: first, the album has interesting arrangements for a novel combination of instruments. Second, besides the ubiquitous Libertango, Oblivion and two Milongas, the pieces in the program are not too familiar. For example, we get the entire Todo Buenos Aires cycle, which, as I know, is not on everyone's plate - except the occasional Romance Del Diablo, but it looks even better inside the cycle.

I always cautiously approach any new rendering of Libertango. It seems that interpreters already exhausted themselves in finding new ways to twist this music. Ephyra's recording is no exception - and I love their take! The nervous pulsing of the piano is entrancing. I must note that the piano mostly assumes the supporting role throughout the album, leaving soloing to the two legato instruments. And when the piano does have its solo (as in Libertango or Street Tango), its long runs of quick notes are uneven. So, something to improve here. This Libertango is very fast, masculine, smoky, dark. About half-way we enter a frenzied passacaglia - very impressive.

Ouverture with its circus-march bravado was actually written for a production of "A Midsummer Night Dream". I find it hard to believe it was not some Brecht. Saxophone and cello sing in turns and together in the beautiful Ausencias. Cello's solos reflect disquiet, nervous under the surface, while the sax is calming; even its sadness is somehow optimistic.

Milonga Picaresque seems to be born for these instruments: at least, it sounds absolutely perfect. The sax is drillingly shrill, the cello tears itself frantically, and it's all so alive. I am sure Piazzolla would approve it. By the way, one of the bonuses of the trio's cast is that we practically have five instruments, not three. This is because the upper and lower registers of both soprano saxophone and cello sound so differently. So, after impersonating a piccolo in Milonga Picaresque, the saxophone goes down in Milonga For Three, almost to the English horn register. But now the cello rises all the way up and turns into a soaring violin. This richness of combinations for just three instruments is amazing. In general, this interpretation of Milonga For Three is faster than I was used to, but the intensity is irresistible, and the intonations are just right. The cello's wild neighing surely tears the soul apart.

Los Sueños starts as a cheerful "official" tango, and then transforms into typical Piazzolla's "cat music". On the way, some very beautiful sonorities are explored. Sin Rumbo is the first place where I do not completely agree with the arranger's decision. The other moment will be in Street Tango, and for the same reason. Using the soprano sax in its highest register for runs of short notes, as in Milonga Picaresque, is one thing; using it for high, long, hard-pressed notes is a different thing. The strain is too strong, and in this sparse texture it is plain pain for the ear. Great mastery of tempo, though.

My favorite track is Street Tango. This is one of those Piazzolla tales - the musical equivalent of a short story by Hemingway. The music depicts strong passions, and all three players give their soul to it.

Todo Buenos Aires is a longer narrative, in several parts. The closest literature parallel could be the stories of Julio Cortázar. It starts with La Mufa - a cold, rainy introduction. The last minute reveals yet more new sonic discoveries. The title track lives on the tango heartbeat of the piano ostinato. Tango Del Diablo is appropriately devilish, full of virile, dangerous attractiveness. A hushed, mysterious transition leads into Romance Del Diablo. And I don't hear the Devil here. I don't believe there can be the Devil behind the music of such exquisite beauty. So intimate and tender, full of sadness and sunshine - Romeo and Juliet, maybe - please let it be real love, not some Devil's mask! Lunfardo plunges back into busy streets and life's obstacle course. As usual, the solution is to move on, keep living. The picture fades away. Oblivion, with its nostalgic melancholy, is a perfect conclusion for this very rewarding program.

The recording quality, and especially the balance of the three instruments, is beyond praise. Great engineering from Adam Caird, the trio's pianist and the technical manager of the Forge recording label. The design of the disc case regrettably does not allow much place for the liner-notes. Still we get a couple of interesting insights into some titles.

I loved this disc very much. It is listenable in one gulp: a true album, not just a collection. I liked the music I did not know. I liked the new presentation of old favorites. I admired the virtuosity of Charlotte Bradburn, the versatility of Vanessa Lucas-Smith and the selfless support of Adam Caird. Most of all, I enjoyed this new feeling of hearing a trio of saxophone, cello and piano. It is like ... well, pardon my comparison, like discovering the world of sushi if you never tried it before. You won't regret trying.

Oleg Ledeniov