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James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Piano Trio No. 2 (2013) [13:25]
Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b. 1934)
Piano Trio A Voyage to Fair Isle (2002) [19:41]
Sally BEAMISH (b. 1956)
Piobaireachd (1991) [10:33]
James MACMILLAN
Fourteen Little Pictures (1997) [22:36]
Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano))
rec. 2014, Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK
CHAMPS HILL RECORDS CHRCD090 [66:19]

A disc of piano trios by three Scots composers ... well, two and an honorary Orcadian is something of a rarity. Champs Hill must be applauded for their endeavour in producing this fine disc.

The disc is bookended by James MacMillan’s two piano trios, opening with his second, which was composed and dedicated to the Gould Piano Trio. It is a strongly rhythmical work that opens with a quite agitated passage. It is driven on by some quite forceful piano writing, which is contrasted, especially in the slower sections, by sensitive writing for the strings, before returning to the more agitated theme of the opening. I really enjoyed this work, even more so than its predecessor, the Fourteen Little Pictures, which is an altogether different work. Darker and less playful in character, each of the ‘Pictures’ blend into next to produce a more sombre and atmospheric work than MacMillan’s Second Trio. I prefer this new recording of the Fourteen Little Pictures by the Goulds to that by the Nash Ensemble (BBM1008), though this represents their second recording of the work. It was previously released on the Wigmore Hall’s own Live label (WHLIVE0026), where it is coupled with Schubert’s E flat Major Piano Trio D929, although in that recording each of the ‘Pictures’ seem to have been given a separate index point. Here and on the Nash Ensemble's recording each work is on a single track.

My favourite work on the disc is Peter Maxwell Davies’ A Voyage to Fair Isle, which I first heard on Radio 3, performed by the work's dedicatees, the Grieg Trio. I remember being so taken by the work that I went to the composer’s website, and ordered a bespoke disc containing the work — a service sadly no longer available from the website. The Trio is one of my favourite of all of Peter Maxwell Davies' works, and was inspired by a visit to the Fair Isle Music Festival. The island's remoteness is represented in this music, as is its craggy appearance. There are even sections where the strings perform traditional folk-like tunes, although they were composed by Maxwell Davies himself. However, the main theme that runs throughout the work is based on a plainsong, proper to the day that he began to compose the work: 8 September, which also happened to be his birthday, for the birth of the Virgin Mary. This performance is excellent; it is comparable to that of the Grieg Trio, with each recording having different highlights that I find preferable. Eahc has a lot to offer the listener; indeed after repeated listening I would not want to be without either.

I must admit to not knowing much of Sally Beamish’s music, but what I have heard on this disc makes me want to hear more. Beamish has composed a series of trios with various instrumentation, including three for the tradition forces of piano, violin and cello. Each of these piano trios bears a name rather than a number, with Piobaireachd being the earliest of them. The opening of the work, which is based upon the variation techniques of the Scottish pibroch, is quite sparse yet strangely mesmerising. The variations gradually become more vigorous and animated as the work progresses. It is a shame that none of Beamish’s other trios seems to be available on record. On this showing they would be well worth investigating.

The Gould Piano Trio give wonderful performances of all these works which will be hard to beat. They show a real affinity with and understanding of the music. The engineers at Champs Hill have captured them well, with the recording having both the clarity and the warmth that these pieces require. Detailed booklet notes by Andrew Stewart accompany this recording, helping the listener get to the heart of this sometimes challenging yet rewarding music.

Stuart Sillitoe