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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer, (arr. piano trio Sally Beamish) [24:02]
Sally BEAMISH (b.1956)
The Seafarer, voice and piano trio [28:45]
Sir Willard White (voice), Trio Apaches
rec. St. George’s Brandon Hill, Bristol, 2013/14

There is a story behind this intriguing new disc. Three leading soloists – Ashley Wass (piano), Matthew Trusler (violin) and Thomas Carroll (cello) - form a piano trio: the Trio Apaches. There is nothing unusual in that, except they aim to “focus on innovative projects and challenging cross-genre collaborations”. They determine that their first recording should include Sally Beamish’s The Seafarer for speaking voice and piano trio, which they had played in their first concert as a trio. They fail to find a nautically-themed trio to fill out the disc, so they ask Beamish to arrange Debussy’s La Mer for piano trio. Astonishingly perhaps, she agrees to take on this impossible task. This disc is the result.

The sea and seafaring seem to be important metaphors for Sally Beamish. Her catalogue lists a violin solo titled “The Lone Seafarer” and her second (of three) Viola Concertos is also entitled “Seafarer”. This Seafarer for voice and piano trio comes between those two works. There is also a work for the Debussian combination of flute, viola and harp called “Between Earth and Sea”. The Seafarer trio sets the Old English poem of the same name, contained in a famous 10th century collection of manuscripts at Exeter Cathedral. The first part invokes the splendours and hardships of life at sea. The second moves to moral reflections on life’s transience, using the metaphor of a sea-voyage, and ends with a prayer of thanksgiving. It is probably, at least for those who were at school in Britain a few decades back, the second best known Anglo-Saxon poem after Beowulf. The translation is one by Charles Harrison Wallace from 1999, which preserves much of the alliterative manner of the Anglo-Saxon.

Orchid’s CD booklet contains much helpful information about Sally Beamish, the Trio Apache and the Debussy arrangement, but nothing at all about the origins or music of The Seafarer except the text, and this is ostensibly the main work, and one for which some context is important. Indeed you could easily listen to it for the first time quite unaware that you will not be hearing any singing. Fortunately the composer herself has kindly provided a copy of her own programme note, which I quote here as any prospective purchaser will need it:-

“This is the central work in a group of three Seafarer pieces; the first is for solo violin, and the third is a viola concerto. They are all directly inspired by the translation from the Anglo-Saxon by Charles Harrison Wallace, and (…the present work…) follows closely his view of the text, falling into five sections. Various themes reappear throughout, transforming as the music develops. The opening undulating wave motif, shortly followed by spiky hail-like counterpoint and the calls of birds (osprey and tern) are merged in various combinations. A ‘hammering heart’ theme emerges. The opening of Part III, with a sinister version of a cuckoo call, marks the beginning of a transformation which culminates at the centre of the piece with eerie otherworldly string music where birds are transformed into banshee-like spirits, hovering as if suspended. Part IV begins with solo cello; the falling third of the cuckoo becomes a mellow elegy. From this point, bleakness almost imperceptibly becomes optimism – a trembling hesitant piano section resolves in a clamour of bells, and thereafter the music anchors itself into a prayer-like ‘coming home’.

All three Seafarer works were inspired by the set of monoprints made by Jila Peacock, which are intended to be projected as an integral part of the performance of this work.” The Seafarer was commissioned for “Summer on the Peninsula” to accompany the ‘Seafarer’ monotypes by Jila Peacock. The commission was supported by Boydell & Brewer Ltd, and first performed at Alderton Church on September 16th 2000 by Crawford Logan, voice, Jacqueline Shave, violin, Robert Irvine, cello and Sally Beamish, piano, in a special presentation directed by David Thompson. “

The repertoire is not rich in works for reciter and solo instrument or chamber group – from the last century Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte and Strauss’s Enoch Arden survive but are rarely heard. So it is intriguing that one of our best senior composers should tackle the form – and clearly succeed. The trio is supportive, but also evocative, and on occasion take the lead, such that we sense a musical form as well as the inevitably dominant literary one. The composer states in a booklet for one of the BIS CDs of her music “I am a pictorial composer”, and indeed she is as unafraid of some frank onomatopoeia as was Beethoven in the Pastoral Symphony. Thus the powerfully bleak lines.
Hail scoured my skin and hoar
Hung heavy
All I ever heard along the ice-way
Was sounding sea, the gannet’s shanty
Whooper and curlew calls and mewling gull

provoke some bird cries from the instruments. We also get hail, waves and bells all expressively evoked, but supporting the text, never dominating it. The Trio Apaches are excellent individually and in combination, and really sound committed to this work. Willard White in a non-singing role is luxury casting perhaps, but he is very much a part of the musical performance in the way he paces the lines, colours his recitation, and places the stresses, almost as if we have four musicians – which in a sense we have. The work runs almost half an hour, but we are held in thrall, with the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet in the role of the button-holing Ancient Mariner. This continues right until the end when reciter, piano trio and the composer provide a moving hymnic close to this fascinating and unusual addition to the catalogue.

No-one will be surprised to learn that Sally Beamish was initially very reluctant to arrange Debussy’s La Mer for piano trio. Difficult enough to reduce an orchestral score to one for three instruments, but surely especially daunting when the score is one renowned for its orchestral subtlety and colouristic invention. She explains that instead of trying to keep every note of the original, which would have had all three players playing all the time and thus resulted in a relentlessly dense texture — itself a most un-Debussyan notion — she decided instead to start from the piano trio combination itself and re-invent Debussy’s score for that medium.

To these ears at least it has worked triumphantly – one soon stops mentally recalling Debussy’s great orchestral seascape and listens instead to …. well, a vaguely familiar and very fine piano trio one has not heard for a while, and can’t quite place. This disc has already proved fun to try out on friends who know La Mer. Debussy’s subtitle for La Mer was “three symphonic sketches” and commentary has usually focused on the ‘sketches’ part, emphasising the painterly skill of he work. Here the work is necessarily stripped of its familiar colours, but that brings the ‘symphonic’ dimension more into play, rather as a monochrome reproduction of a colourful painting can reveal its structure. There are nonetheless new colours to be heard, and the Trio Apache relish the task of providing a wide range of these colouristic effects — some of which it seems they had a hand in devising when working with Sally Beamish on it. Then again, these players are superb throughout the disc, which captures them in very good sound.

The arranger mentions that she used Ravel’s great piano trio as one textural benchmark, and the overall playing time here means they might have squeezed in that piece too – if that seems greedy I can plead only that the playing is so very good and that the young Ravel was after all one of the Apaches. Perhaps we might have had Debussy’s early and charming piano trio, a genre for which alas he neglected to give us a mature successor but it seems that Sally Beamish has now done that for him.
Roy Westbrook