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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Trio (1914) [27:09]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Cello Sonata (1915) [11:17]
Violin Sonata (1917) [13:31]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Piano Trio, Opus 120 (1923) [20:33]
Hagai Shaham (vioin); Raphael Wallfisch (cello); Amon Erez (piano)
rec. Wyastone, Monmouth, 9-11 February 2013
NIMBUS NI5905 [72:38]

The first point to make about this new issue of French chamber music is that it is exceptionally well planned. Four important works are gathered together from three important composers. The two sonatas by Debussy might have been replaced by his early Piano Trio, but while being of interest that would not have made for such a strong programme.
 
The two Debussy sonatas come from his last years, when he planned a series of six chamber pieces. These were the war years, during which ill health intervened. He died from bowel cancer at the age of just 56, having completed just three of the pieces: the present pair of sonatas plus that for flute, viola and harp. The Cello Sonata was originally given the title 'Pierrot fâché avec la lune', since the intention was to evoke the spirit of the Commedia dell'arte and the figure of Harlequin. Raphael Wallfisch and Amon Erez capture this implied mood to perfection, aided - as are the other pieces - by the particularly fine Nimbus recording, combining atmosphere and accuracy.
 
The Violin Sonata was Debussy’s last completed composition, dating from 1917. The music has a committed emotional language, often guided by its animated combination of fantasy and elegance. Debussy spoke of 'the simple play of an idea turning upon itself, like a snake biting its own tail', and the craftsmanship is typically refined. So too is the performance of Hagai Shaham and Amon Erez, which is beautifully phrased and balanced.
 
Ravel composed his Piano Trio in 1914, just before the war. He claimed he had ‘done five months’ work in five weeks’, because he wanted to complete the Trio before joining up. This score is on a much larger scale than the two sonatas by Debussy, and is around half an hour long. Therefore the general sweep and unity of the material needs to be projected by the performers, as well as the detailed exposition of the individual movements. Shaham, Erez and Wallfisch play with consummate skill, achieving a splendidly balanced texture, but their interpretation does not eclipse thoughts of other celebrated recordings by, for example, the Florestan Trio (Hyperion CDA67114) or the Nash Ensemble (CRD3446).
 
Fauré’s Piano Trio was possibly his very last composition, written after his retirement from his illustrious teaching career. For the composer’s benefit, a special concert of his works was given at the Sorbonne in June 1922. Fired with renewed enthusiasm by this event, he returned to composition at the request of his publisher Jacques Durand, writing the Piano Trio during the autumn and winter. It was first performed by Alfred Cortot, Jacques Thibaut and Pablo Casals in June 1923. The music confirms that Fauré’s powers remained at their height, and its three movements reveal a conception of chamber music on the large scale across a span of more than twenty minutes. Shaham, Wallfisch and Erez render the central Andantino with great sensitivity of tone and phrasing, while bringing strength and urgency to the more lively outer movements.
 
Terry Barfoot