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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 Op.120 (1924) [20:33]
Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch (Hagai Shaham (violin), Arnon Erez (piano), Raphael Wallfisch (cello))
rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 9-11 February 2013
NIMBUS NI 5905 [72:38]

To begin with I cannot do better than quote the opening words of Callum MacDonald in his brochure notes: “These four works, by perhaps the three most commanding figures in French music in the early part of the 20th century, were all composed within the space of eight years, and are among their composers’ definitive contributions to the chamber music genre. In their different ways, each has an autobiographical element, while transcending mere personal details to produce utterances that remain haunting in their universality”.
Haunting is precisely the adjective that comes to my mind each time I hear the opening notes of Ravel’s piano trio for I know of no more gorgeously beautiful an opening to any work chamber or otherwise. Reading the notes it would appear that there is an element of Basque folk rhythm within the first movement in particular reflecting his native region. The year before he wrote this work he had begun a projected piano concerto entitled Zazpiak Bat which is Basque for ‘The Seven are One’ the Basque nationalist slogan expressing their desire for the creation of a country made out of the Basque regions of France and Spain. He never completed that concerto but this one was given its first performance on 28 January 1915. Ravel employed some ground-breaking features not only in terms of timbre and harmony but in finding solutions for enabling the percussive nature of the piano to become a more integral member of the trio rather than it seeming a separate entity. If anyone was able to achieve such an aim it was Ravel who is increasingly emerging as a major contributor to a new direction for music in the early twentieth century. The music is ravishing in its beauty and there cannot be said to be a note too few or too many. Having said that, the version played here is merely considered to be ‘the closest to Ravel’s intentions’ because of a combination of printer’s and engraver’s errors in the original score coupled with tinkering by its earliest performers. Suffice to say that this is a superb rendition with each player doing Ravel the ultimate justice in presenting this work in the best possible light.
All four works on this disc were composed just before the outbreak of the First World War or in its early months as with Debussy’s cello and violin sonatas. These were to be two of a cycle of six he planned to write as his contribution to his country given that he was unable to take any military role due to the increasingly aggressive cancer that would kill him in 1918. In the event he managed just three of the projected six, the other one being his sonata for flute, viola and harp. All three were signed as being by Claude Debussy, musician français to express his patriotic fervour. One can only imagine how the final one might have sounded since it was planned to include all the instruments featured in the other five. Again as with Ravel’s trio the opening of Debussy’s cello sonata is immediately recognisable and is another that is staggeringly beautiful in its simplicity and as perfect an example of ‘less is more’ as can be found in music. It is even more surprising when you read that Debussy had never composed a sonata before. Then again, that is one of the measures of genius, a word that may be employed more often than it should be but is absolutely valid in Debussy’s case. He reminds the pianist to ‘never forget that he is to accompany the cello, not vie with it’. This is sound advice of which Arnon Erez, the pianist here could never be accused. While the central movement shocked listeners at the time of its composition with its abrupt pizzicato rhythms the outer movements are lyrical and passionate statements that Debussy was so wonderfully adept in producing. His violin sonata also begins with an immediately recognisable opening with two notes on the piano before the cello joins in. Those notes, on their own, would alert anyone who knows this work to what they were listening to. While those two notes herald a movement that is full of nostalgia and tinged with sadness its beauty shines through. This makes the second movement a considerable contrast in that it is mischievous and puckish. The two instruments play around each other delightfully. This sets us up for the finale which is marked très animé though it has echoes of the melancholy expressed in the opening movement. I was struck with the deep richness of sound from Shaham’s violin which sounded almost like a viola at times. It is works such as these two that make Debussy one of my favourite composers whose music I could never be without.
Gabriel Fauré who was born seventeen years before Debussy and who outlived him by six experienced a final flowering of compositional creativity towards the end of his life. This was despite increasingly failing health. The piano trio was his penultimate work, written the same year he died. It is a glorious outpouring of pure emotion and nothing in the music indicates to me a man who had but a few months to live.
To sum up: we have a disc with four superb examples of chamber music from three of the giants of early twentieth century French music. They make for a wonderful programme. The trio of musicians playing here are brilliant exponents of this kind of repertoire in which rapport is the essential ingredient and which they demonstrate to perfection. If there are still people who are either unfamiliar with these works or who simply don’t yet own them then they could do no better than snap this disc up and wallow in some of the most fabulous chamber music ever written.
Steve Arloff   

See also review by Terry Barfoot

* Special price of £11 only until the end September 2013 - price then reverts to £12