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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Trio in A minor (1914) [26:29]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Trio in G minor, Op. 3 (1881) [30:04]
Trio Solisti (Maria Bachman (violin); Alexis Pia Gerlach (cello); Adam Neiman (piano))
rec. 2013, The Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, New York.
BRIDGE 9440 [56:40]

This is a popular coupling, but it is not that obvious that these two works have a lot in common apart from being four movement piano trios by Frenchmen. The Chausson is an early piece from 1881, and a fine achievement which the composer would later surpass, while the Ravel is one of his mature works from 1914 and a pinnacle of this difficult genre. Also Chausson loved Wagner and Ravel revered Mozart, and in both cases it shows. The former gives us a Franckian cyclical work, with a late Romantic and occasionally hothouse sensibility, impetuous, fervent, and densely scored for the medium. The Ravel is as cool, controlled, tender and technically immaculate as we expect from that artist, with more air in the texture - as in the beguiling last page of the beautiful passacaille, where a piano solo is followed by a duo for the two string players which then gives way to a final cello-and-piano statement of the theme. These two pieces generate a different emotional temperature, and performing them requires a different artistic temperament. So it is surprising perhaps that both performances in this coupling often tend to be equally successful – as they are here.

Trio Solisti are excellent players, and the Chausson is especially well executed. There is a coiled tension to the first statements in the opening Pas trop lent introductory part of the first movement, and they give it everything in the stormier passages which follow in the animé main section – it is important to sound committed to such passionate music as this, and they do. The second movement, marked Vite, is certainly full of life here, and the players sound as if they are enjoying the swift succession of the uneven phrase lengths. Their account of the slow movement has a withdrawn brooding melancholy, and the finale, which like the scherzo at times recalls Brahms more than Franck or Wagner, is given with a lilting insouciance. At least it is until the end, when the cyclic theme is recalled to generate a passionate conclusion, which Trio Solisti play with a satisfying sense of bringing events full circle. Their consistency in handling the tempo and phrasing of the main cyclic theme is a benefit throughout in providing structural signposts.

The Ravel Trio also is very scrupulously performed, with the fastidious markings well observed throughout, yet with a sense of a real, lived-in performance. This is demanding music — Ravel said he himself was “absolutely incapable of performing the piano part” — but one can hear why these three players opted for their name of Trio Solisti. Soloists they may be, but they blend well too, which is essential in several passages to get the effect Ravel wanted. Tempi are close to the metronome marks without sounding metronomic, the Trios Solisti remaining expressively and subtly flexible within that metrical discipline.

A pity that neither here nor in the Chausson are they given recording quality to match the atmosphere of the music. It’s a bit close and dry, slightly glassy in the upper range of the violin and piano, and a little tubby in the very low piano notes of the great passacaglia slow movement – and these are melodic notes, needing to resonate expressively at the slow tempo. When the music gets loud and clamorous in the Pantoum second movement and the finale, there is some hardness and congestion. A piano trio is a difficult combination to balance not only for the composer and the players but also for the recording engineer. I would not wish to exaggerate this issue as the sound never compromises the excellence of the performances – but a little more bloom would have been beneficial. In all other respects this is an attractive release from very fine musicians.

Other rewarding versions of this coupling came from the Beaux Arts Trio on Philips in 1984, the Trio Wanderer on Harmonia Mundi in 1999 (now at bargain price in its 2007 reissue), and the Trio Chausson on Mirare in 2007. For those who prefer to collect each of these works on discs devoted to a single composer, there is the outstanding all-Chausson disc on Hyperion from 2000, which also has the chamber version of the well-known Poème. For the Ravel trio, the 1996 Philips Solo issue brought together the Beaux Arts Trio’s earlier version with the String Quartet from the Quartetto Italiano and the Violin Sonata from Arthur Grumiaux – a great Ravel CD so it is still worth seeking out an affordable copy. Or, as suggested in an earlier MusicWeb International review of this Trio Solisti release, there is the fine 2001 recording from Frank Braley with Renaud and Gautier Capuçon on Virgin Classics. Their well-filled disc adds the two violin sonatas and the violin and cello sonata.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Michael Cookson