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American Piano Trios
Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Trio in A minor Op.150 [12:13]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Trio [23:51]
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Three Nocturnes [7:37]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Vitebsk
- Study on a Jewish Theme [11:34]
Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Trio, Four Combinations of Three Instruments [9:38]
Hartley Trio (Jacqueline Hartley (violin); Lionel Handy (cello); Caroline Clemmow (piano))
rec. 1992
DAL SEGNO DSPRCD057 [64:51]

Experience Classicsonline

All of the composers represented on this CD have reputations for producing surprising works, and there are certainly a few surprises here. The composers you might expect to be the most radical - Ives and Cowell - turn in the most listenable scores, while among the more traditional names, Copland in particular indulges in some uncharacteristically caustic Modernism. 

Don't be put off though, because every work is fascinating, and the other composers grab the attention just as well, and without recourse to unfriendly harmonies. A late work by Amy Beach opens the programme. There is a feeling of French Impressionism here, but she always keeps her feet on the ground with rigorous Brahmsian thematicism. One of her favourite textures is a solo string line with wispy obbligato from the piano right-hand. It's all very attractive, and there is some real dramatic substance too.
 
The early Piano Trio by Charles Ives anticipates many of the musical ideas for which he later became famous. Disjunction, especially between the instruments, is the order of the day, and however progressive his textures become, they are always underpinned with a wry humour. The second movement is entitled TSIAJ, an acronym for This Scherzo Is A Joke. The movement is a classic Ives montage, with all sorts of borrowed tunes and melodic ideas overlaid and brought into collision.
 
The Bloch Three Nocturnes, as the name suggests, is a more staid affair. Each of the three has a very particular atmosphere, dreamy but with clear harmonic identity. Each comes in at between two and three minutes, which is really a bit short for this sort of music, and Bloch's minimalist successors would have no qualms about stretching each out to at least an hour.
 
Vitebsk by Copland is apparently a study on a Jewish Theme. Judging by the angularity of its harmonies and voice leading, he is intent on exaggerating the exotic dimension of his material. But while the ethnography may be suspect, the music hits the mark, and Copland cleverly employs the distinctive motivic identity of his theme to create propulsion and identity.
 
The Henry Cowell Trio, Four Combinations of Three Instruments is the real surprise on the disc. Stylistically, it is easily the most conservative of the works. It is easy-going and melodic, often playing out as just one line doubled between the instruments or simple two part textures. But if you listen closely, you can hear some distinctive Cowell traits. In the second movement, for example, the piano plays almost throughout in clusters, but the clusters are carefully chosen and played so quietly that they sound like extended diatonic chords. An experimental work, then, but one that is also calculated not to offend.
 
The performances are good, if not outstanding. The intonation between the violin and cello is an occasional problem. The recording was made in 1992, and while the sound is acceptable, the recording shows its age. I'd have liked more piano in the mix, not that it is ever obscured, but it is sometimes deprived of the chance to lead the ensemble.
 
This is a fascinating disc, and the gaps it is likely to plug in your CD collection are the sort of gaps you didn't know you had. The packaging is on the perfunctory side, and at the risk of sounding hopelessly pedantic, the liner-notes could do with a friendlier font. But I'd recommend it to the curious, and especially to players in adventurous piano trios on the look-out for new repertoire. Many of these works deserve a much wider audience.  

Gavin Dixon

… and a review by Rob Barnett 

Dal Segno in a burst of reissues regale us afresh with discs that may well have escaped us first time around. This is a well mixed collection and is a successor to the Hartley Trio's British and Czech piano trio discs: Dvorák: Piano Trio in G minor, op.26*; Fibich: Trio in F minor* Gamut GAMCD 523 (1991); Bridge: Phantasie in C minor; Clarke: Piano Trio*; Ireland: Phantasie in A minor* Gamut GAMCD 518 (1990) 
I have not heard the others but this one adopts a warmly cloaked sound - a cocooned effect with calorific radiance aplenty.
 
The Beach is romantic and witty, rather Brahmsian yet pointed and florid. It's a confident piece of writing recalling the Franck chamber works. The Ives Trio - over three movements - manages both avant-garde and fragmented expressionism. Its second movement is frenetic and makes wildly anarchic and discordant play across some 20 popular tunes. It’s the sort of piece that would at one stage have appealed to Peter Maxwell Davies - it is termed TSIAJ (This Scherzo Is A Joke). The trio dissonantly melts Rock of Ages out of focus and back and out again. Fascinating.
 
Bloch, we are reminded by the pithy notes, became an American citizen in 1924, the same year in which he wrote these Three Nocturnes. The first of these is an Andante, highly intense and darkly optimistic with gritty courage and chiming beauty in the piano part at 00:29. The Andante quieto is tender and close to sentimental. Ruthless determination invigorates the Tempestoso which is further evidence that when Bloch sets about nocturne writing he is not interested just in sleep. It makes an edgy end to the Nocturnes. Copland's Vitebsk is dedicated to Roy Harris. It's a vinegary and uningratiating piece: much troubled, melodramatic and forthright. It ends quietly.
 
Henry Cowell is a fascinating composer and something of an undiscovered colossus such is the span of his output. His Trio - Four Combinations of Three Instruments - is another work in which dissonance is accommodated with subtlety alongside a more slowly evolutionary and limpid melodic line. Most striking of the movements is the dewdrop Bachian chiming and trilling of the final and magical Largo. The four movements deploy: I, violin and cello II, violin and piano, III, cello and piano, IV, all three instruments.
 
As is characteristic of these Dal Segnos no total playing time is declared and the notes are anonymous.
 
A subtle collection satisfyingly avoiding the obvious.
 
Rob Barnett
 

 


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