‘Neave’ is a Gaelic word, which, according to this youthful piano trio’s web-site, means ‘bright and radiant’. There are three nations represented here – USA, Russia and Scotland. I shouldn’t be surprised if it’s Toni James, the trio’s Scottish pianist, who may have proposed the highly appropriate name.
This is what I must, I suppose, describe as a ‘promotional CD’, since it has been specially produced by the group themselves. Its packaging, though attractive, is fairly basic; there are no recording details or notes about the music; and though the trio's website
calls the CD ‘Earth and Sky’, there is no mention of that title on the CD itself.
No matter; in the things of real consequence, there is absolutely nothing ‘amateurish’ about this issue, and, promotion or no promotion, it is emphatically worth hearing simply for the inspired quality of the music-making.
They are clearly an ambitious trio, in the best sense – you can infer that from the repertoire they have chosen here, which consists of two supreme examples of 20th
century chamber music. In the Shostakovich, we have a piece that stretches to the limits not only individual skill and technique, but also quality of ensemble.
If I had a reservation as I listened, it was just about the balance, always a thorny issue when recording piano and strings. The piano is just a little too ‘far back’ for my taste; never completely lost behind the strings, but at a disadvantage nonetheless. It meant, for me that as I listened, the personality of Toni James, the pianist, took a little longer to register than those of her string colleagues. However, by the end of track 1, the glorious Allegro ma non troppo
of the Fauré, I had become aware that this was a chamber music pianist of the highest calibre.
The Fauré starts out with a long-breathed melody for the cello, an absolute gift for a good player. Mikhail Veselov is much more than that; he produces a rich, generous and passionate sound, and phrases with the utmost persuasiveness, providing a wonderful emotional momentum to the piece. He also has the sobering responsibility of beginning the Shostakovich, rightly considered one of the most terrifying moments in the whole of chamber music. The cello is unaccompanied, and plays the main theme in intentionally breathy, disembodied harmonics. These are tricky enough to play at the best of times, but the context makes them ten times more so — or so I’m told; I’m not a cellist. It is said that Shostakovich wished to convey the emotions of someone being interrogated, even tortured – something that happened to so many thousands during the Stalin years; the work was first performed in 1944. Certainly the solo cellist can empathise; the whole of this first movement has an incredible tension, as well as a galvanising concentration in the Neaves’ presentation of it.
Those qualities are sustained throughout: the manic scherzo is brilliantly executed at a very fast yet controlled tempo. The passacaglia slow movement – which at the start always brings to my mind Schubert’s Der Doppelgänger -
has a tragic intensity. The finale, with its Jewish-inspired dance music, finds exactly the right blend of humour and despair. What emerges is a truly outstanding reading of this great work.
The Fauré – could there be a more contrasted pair of trios? – has as much Gallic warmth as the Shostakovich has Russian bleakness. After that great opening in the cello, the first movement has an understated yet inexorable sweep to it. The Andantino
is just very beautiful; I have neglected thus far to mention the violinist, Anna Williams; suffice to say that she is wholly the equal of her partners, and brings an unaffected expressive quality to this songful movement. It’s precisely what is needed. In Fauré, if you can make the music sing at all times, you have found the key to its essence.
I do hope that an established recording label will get hold of this brilliant trio and provide them with the opportunity to record more. I cannot over-emphasise the high quality of their music-making. It was a joy to listen to this disc.