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Carl FRÜHLING (1868-1937)
Trio for clarinet, cello and piano in A minor, Op. 40 [24:43]
Wilhelm BERGER (1861-1911)
Trio for clarinet, cello and piano in G minor, Op. 94 [34:10]
Trio Vidas (Philippe Ancion (clarinet), Catherine Lebrun (cello), Maya Traikova (piano))
rec. 7-12 April 2011, Studio of the House of Composers, Sofia, Bulgaria
PAVANE ADW7543 [58:53]

Carl Frühling was born in Lviv, Ukraine, formerly known as Lemberg. He began composing salon pieces for piano at a very early age, and was subsequently invited to join the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. There he taught piano and theory. He also worked as an accompanist. In addition to his output for piano, Frühling produced an impressive piano quintet, and the clarinet trio on this CD, a substantial amount of vocal and instrumental music, including a piano concerto. He still remained largely unsuccessful, dying poor and forgotten in Vienna. Much of his output seems to have been neglected and only a few musicologists have subsequently taken much interest in his oeuvre, coming, as it does, between the passing of post-romanticism and the first stirrings of the Second Viennese School. It was also not helped by the composer’s Jewish heritage at the time.

USA-based Edition Silvertrust has brought out editions of some of the composer’s works, which enabled many more performances of his chamber music, including ones by the present artists – Trio Vidas. They played the Trio in Belgium, France and Bulgaria back in 2011. Its relatively-increased popularity is perhaps more directly attributable to international cellist Steven Isserlis, who was introduced to the work by an amateur clarinettist, a good number of years back. Isserlis was already acquainted with works for the same combination by more-familiar names in the repertoire – D’Indy and Zemlinsky – but whose examples had hardly caused the cellist to light the blue touch-paper. Having heard far less about Frühling, Isserlis very much suspected that the initial play-through might end with the work also being rather unceremoniously assigned to the rubbish bin. In fact, in an interview in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper (October 2000), that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Isserlis commented: 'Initially I was a bit suspicious, but I perked up immediately we started to play it, just loving its unpretentious warmth, humour, and the gentle charm of the style overall.' Unfortunately a subsequent bad performance in Finland, with a decidedly inferior colleague, led to Isserlis putting it aside once more. When he later became friends with equally gifted clarinettist Michael Collins, and then pianist Stephen Hough, they, too, waxed lyrical over its allure. The work was soon recorded by BMG/RCA.

My acquaintance with the Frühling Trio came about more as a result of insomnia, than having been introduced to the work like Isserlis. I always leave my radio playing at night. From midnight onwards, BBC Radio 3 still features a lot of music that is unfamiliar, before the inevitable ‘Breakfast menu’ kicks in, and it mutates into a slightly upmarket clone of Classic FM for most of the day, but thankfully still without the adverts. I heard the Trio, and, like Isserlis, was immediately struck by its freshness – you could almost say ‘spring freshness’, were you to make a pun out of the composer’s surname, which is the German word for ‘spring’. There is real appeal in the graceful charm of the opening movement (Maßig schnell). The second (Anmutig bewegt), is a delightful Viennese Waltz that certainly lives up to the tempo marking – ‘gracefully moving’; it offers some lovely little piquant harmonic surprises along the way. A more passionate tripartite ‘Andante’ slow movement ensues, opening with a chorale-like melody from the cello, again with some interesting harmonic touches like the more frequently-occurring augmented triads, and some use of modality. Perhaps here, Frühling best exposes his musical ethnicity which gives the writing a little more heartfelt conviction, especially since it’s the longest of the four movements. The finale (Allegro vivace) feels as if, by needing to provide an effective conclusion, the composer is looking to extend his harmonic language further, though always within his perception of the bounds of good taste. Frequently, and as elsewhere in the Trio, Frühling makes telling use of clarinet and cello an octave part, but has sufficient sensitivity to know when independent lines are to be preferred. Equally he knows how to write an effective and appropriate conclusion – in the tonic major – to this most charming work. It deserves to be far better known. Often, by way of assessing the amount of sleep I have, I will check the programme schedule in the morning, often to find a good number of works I don’t recall hearing, and therefore must have slept through them. Frühling’s Trio definitely wasn’t one of them.

Returning briefly to the recording by Isserlis, Collins and Hough – which colleague Ian Lace reviewed in December 1999 – these three long-established artists are certainly more impressive in performance than Pavane’s team of Trio Vidas who, while formed back in 1981, don’t exhibit the same technical prowess, especially the clarinet and cello.

The main work on the Isserlis CD is Brahms’s Trio in A minor, arguably the definitive work in the field. Schumann’s popular ‘Märchenerzählungen’ makes an attractive coupling, especially with the composer’s ‘Träumerei’ added by way of a stocking-filler. The Frühling Trio is also available with either a coupling of works by Spohr, and Archduke Rudolph on the CBC Musica Viva label (MVCD 1158), or with the Zemlinsky on Preiser (Catalogue number 299). However it’s the Berger coupling on the present Pavane disc that makes this CD especially attractive.

Wilhelm Berger’s father, originally a merchant from the north German city of Bremen, worked in Boston, Massachusetts – where the young Berger was, in fact, born – as a music shopkeeper. He made a name for himself as an author after the family had returned to Bremen in 1862. Early on, Wilhelm Berger showed signs of musical aptitude, and went on to study at the Royal Conservatory in Berlin. He later taught at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory, and, in addition, was very active as a concert pianist. Like most of the composers from the circle of the so-called ‘Berlin Academics’, Berger developed an impressive mastery of music theory. Stylistically, his music is very close to that of Brahms, while also hinting at the works of Reger, in terms of Berger’s penchant for somewhat more dissonant harmony and use of counterpoint.

Berger's Trio for clarinet, cello and piano in G minor, Op. 94 (1903) was composed for clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, for whom Brahms had written his own clarinet trio. It is again a four-movement work, tonally more advanced than Brahms but not quite as much as Reger. There are, in fact, similarities between the Berger and Brahms trios in that they both appear more reflective and tender in character. There is that same late-evening glow in the opening ‘Allegro’ of the Berger, with triplet movement used to create more impetus when needed. The ‘Adagio’ opens with a lush cello melody of great beauty and the prevailing mood is restful and dreamlike A sense of hurry comes to the contrasting middle section, and where Berger writes for clarinet and cello an octave apart, something which Frühling did more frequently in his trio. The music rises to a climax before preparing for a return to the loveliness of the opening, now with the clarinet in charge, leaving the cello to add its own pizzicato interjections. The pace quickens once more, before clarinet and cello in octaves lead to the gentlest conclusion of this immensely appealing slow movement. The ensuing ‘Poco vivace e con passione’, effectively the scherzo movement, again is calmer overall, despite its more lively motion. Melodically and harmonically it relies a lot on the chromatic scale, whereas the tender and peaceful trio section at least opens with more simple diatonic harmony, but where faster chromatic scales become entwined from cello and clarinet. The scherzo returns, and the music builds once more, yet still culminates in a gently laid-back close. The finale (Allegro con fuoco) opens with a brilliant fugue, which has a good deal more excitement to it, even in a somewhat menacing way. The upbeat second theme, presented first by the clarinet, is spirited and a little more relaxed in character. Berger makes an powerful use of silence as the fugue literally restarts. The buoyant theme returns, now on cello, after which Berger once more makes telling use of rests, before a dominant pedal leads to as powerful a dénouement as might be expected in this highly attractive work, but one that really never raises its voice too much throughout.

Like Isserlis, it was the Frühling that initially caught my attention. However, as a result of Pavane’s highly appropriate choice of coupling, especially at a time when the Berger trio is not well represented in the catalogue, this valuable CD emerges not just as yet another attempt to convince collectors that the music of the two composers heard here is life-changing and the best thing since sliced bread. Some more recent issues have attempted to do this, I feel, not always with success, but here the music is distinctive enough to speak for itself – which it certainly will do when more people get to hear it, and which, in turn, will encourage some of the top players and leading labels to record it.

Philip R Buttall


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