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American Moments
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Piano Trio op.1 (1909-10) [30:11]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Trio (1937) [15:48]
Arthur FOOTE (1853-1937)
Piano Trio No.2 Op.65 (1907-08) [21:13]
Neave Trio (Anna Williams (violin), Mikhail Veselov (cello), Eri Nakamura (piano))
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK, March 2016
CHANDOS CHAN10924 [68:34]

A slightly confusingly titled disc of piano trios from the Neave Trio on Chandos. Quite why it has been produced under the collective title "American Moments" I do not know. For sure composers Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Foote are American composers, but in no way could Korngold's Op.1 Piano Trio be considered to have any American links at all. At the point Korngold wrote the work one imagines he saw himself spending his entire creative life in Vienna. The three works presented here are well represented in the catalogue, although this is a unique coupling. The Bernstein and Korngold are of interest, because they are both products of those composers’ precocious teenage years. The Foote is the sure-footed(!) product of his fifties.

The most substantial work offered here is the Korngold Op.1 - a simply absurdly confident and effective work for a composer of any age to produce early in his career, let alone at the age of twelve. The work is in four movements, which mimic symphonic rather than chamber form. Indeed this feels like a work straining at the seams of the self-imposed chamber form. For the other two works I enjoy the Neave Trios performances a lot. I have to say the Korngold suffers from one recurring and debilitating artistic choice that I really do not like. Violinist Anna Williams chooses to play many, if not most, of the widely arching phrases in this work with disfiguring scoops and slides. This is not just a question of expressive portamenti or indeed historically-informed 'audible shifting'. There is no indication at all in the printed score that Korngold wanted marked slides, but of course in any music there is much that is implicit rather than explicitly indicated. But, any technical tool used for expressive means from varied vibrato to the bow's position on the string or indeed slides such as here, need to be applied judiciously. Here, almost every phrase makes the same swooning impact. The first movement suffers most - partly because of the sweeping expressive style of the music, but every part of the work is disfigured. I appreciate "disfigured" is a strong word to use, but every time I returned to this disc I found my reaction to be the same. Either of the other versions of this trio I know; the Röhn Trio on Hänssler-Profil and the Göbel Trio Berlin on Etcetera. Andreas Röhn is the very impressive violinist on the former. Setting aside issues of taking written repeats or not - Röhn does not - he plays with a far more varied, sophisticated and, frankly, stylistically appropriate use of little slides and portamenti as opposed to Williams' "one-slide-fits-all" approach. The Röhn Trio is very good too at catching the little impulsive ebbs and flows that this music requires; a suddenly push on here, an affectionate linger there. The Neave trio - who aside from this issue of the sliding - plays extremely well - simply does not project this sense of spontaneity. A far from careful check online showed at least nine other versions of this trio apart from this new version and the two others I know. So for the buyer, the choice is very literally yours - sample before you buy.

Once past the considerable hurdle of the Korngold, things improve considerably. I had not heard Bernstein's student Piano Trio before - if the Korngold is prodigious then this certainly qualifies as precocious. The liner describes Bernstein at Harvard University as "charismatic if wayward." That is actually rather a good description of the piano trio, too. Bernstein's mentor, if not teacher at this time, Aaron Copland advised the younger man to purge his music of its undigested influences, which at times do take the form of near pastiche. But at the same time there is a wonderful uninhibited vigour and energy that is very engaging. Certainly, except some bluesy moments in the central Tempo di Marcia - the innocent ear would be very hard put to recognise this as Bernstein's work - there a Central European stamp and swagger to the closing movement in particular that sound more Bartókian than anything else. What does impress, is how confidently he handles the musical textures as much as the material - he is not adverse to thinning the material back to the simplest of lines or conversely building up climaxes of considerable weight.

Both the Bernstein and the Foote seem to suit the preferred sound and tonal blend of the Neave trio. Although they have power a plenty when required, their default texture is not the rich saturated vibrato-laden sound some groups prefer. This certainly pays dividends in the Bernstein, which needs clarity, and also the Foote, which is essentially a Romantic work, which taps into to the lighter textures of a Mendelssohn or Schubert rather than the weight of Strauss.

I had not encountered the Foote trio before. It is one of those works that resolutely looks back from its composition date of 1909 towards the stalwarts of the German Romantic tradition. The musical material is instantly attractive and easily lyrical. In none of the work's three movements is Foote trying to break, or indeed stretch, any boundaries - by this measure it is easy to understand why the music was readily accepted in its early life, but has not retained much of a foothold in the repertoire. Again there are other recordings available - which I have not heard - but this new version strikes me as wholly successful. Indeed the central Tranquillo movement is a highlight of the whole disc, showing all the players in the finest light. This is a simple song-like movement, led off by cellist Mikhail Veselov, playing with a rapturously inward simplicity and floated tone. This is matched by violinist Anna Williams, showing herself to be fully capable of disarmingly unaffected playing. For sure there is nothing revolutionary about this music - part of its appeal is that is pretty much does what you expect it to do when you expect it to do it - but when played as well as it is here it is a delight.

Throughout the entire disc the Chandos engineering is discreetly impressive. The Potton Hall Steinway Model D is pretty much ideally balanced within the trio with all three voices registering equally and effectively. Williams is prone to rather audible 'up-beat' sniffs but this is not unduly distracting. The liner is the usual Chandos tri-lingual presentation, not overly long but usefully informative. Slightly perversely the booklet includes a photograph of Korngold, but neither of the other two composers; instead we are given no less than five pictures of the trio - plus another on the cover, which shows them sitting on a bridge with pianist Eri Nakamura playing a toy instrument and another of them "studying" a score. Both of which enter the category of pointless publicity shots.

So a disc about which I have very mixed feelings; I doubt I will ever choose to listen to this version of the Korngold again, but conversely I am very pleased to have been introduced to the Bernstein and Foote in such persuasive and well recorded versions. Perhaps a case where cherry-picking downloads are the answer.

Nick Barnard

 




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