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Pēteris VASKS (b. 1946)
Episodi e Canto perpetuo (1985) [26:00]
Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Trio in Nine Short Movements (1965) [16:44]
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
Three Funny Pieces (1981/1997) [6:49]
Paul SCHOENFIELD (b. 1947)
Café Music (1986) [16:08]
AdAstra Piano Trio (Anna Szabelka (violin), Łukasz Frant (cello), Joanna Galon-Frant (piano))
rec. 2016, Chamber Hall of the Polish National Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, Poland
CD ACCORD ACD231-2 [65:55]

Here is a fine disc by a Polish ensemble performing piano trios from the second half of the Twentieth Century by Latvian, American, and Russian composers. All four works consist of rather brief movements, hence the disc title, “Episodi.”

But episodi also refers to the longest piece on the disc, the Episodi e Canto perpetuo by Pēteris Vasks. If you are fond of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, you will likely enjoy Vasks. Dedicated to Messiaen, Vasks’s set of eight short movements are dramatic and flamboyant, full of yearning ostinatos and soaring cries of jubilation. At the same time, they have moments of serenity, as well as fun (are those bird calls in the rather rattling Mysterioso?) Vasks’s music is often other-worldly, but whatever spiritual content it claims, remains inviting also to secular listeners.

This intense performance is rivaled by Trio Parnassus on MDG. Both performances are excellent, differing in small ways. The Trio Parnassus recording is paired with Vasks’s later Piano Quartet, which might turn some toward the MDG version.
But then they might miss the other outstanding work here, Henry Cowell’s Trio in Nine Short Movements. Cowell, an inventive Californian, is perhaps best known for his radical experiments with tone clusters and playing directly upon the strings of the piano. This trio, from the last year of Cowell’s life, offers order and restraint. The nine movements are studies in what a piano trio can do, with clever tinkering. The abrupt break at the end of the final movement recalls Haydn, whose spirit seems to lie behind this cool, refreshing trio.

The remaining two pieces are lighter, perhaps best seen as encores. Rodion Shchedrin’s trifle, Three Funny Pieces, really did make me smile, especially the second movement, “Let’s play an opera by Rossini.”

I cared less for Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music, although I imagine many listeners will relish its bluesy harmonies and syncopated rhythms. Fans of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue will enjoy finding a chamber music counterpart, although the piece left me wondering if jazz and the piano trio are such comfortable music-mates. But listeners whose shirts are stuffed less than mine may savor this spikey, toe-tapping music. It certainly shows that the AdAstra Piano Trio can play a wide range of music with style and conviction.
Richard Kraus



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