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Charles O’BRIEN (1882-1968)
Complete Chamber Music - Volume 1
Sonata for Piano Trio No.1 in B flat major, Op.27 (first perf. 1940) [25:23]
Sonata for Piano Trio No.2 in C minor (first perf. 1940) [26:50]
Two Waltzes for Piano Trio (1928) [7:21]
Yuri Kalnits (violin), Alexander Volpov (cello), Oleg Poliansky (piano)
rec. 2017, Master Chord Studio, North Finchley, London
TOCCATA TOCC0464 [59:54]

Toccata’s reclamation of the music of Charles O’Brien now moves into a new realm. Having explored his orchestral music this is the first volume in his complete chamber cycle and the most obvious question to confront the listener – one which now seems impossible to answer with certainty – relates to dates of composition. Both the curiously titled Sonatas for Piano Trio – just what precisely is wrong with plain old ‘Piano Trio’? – were premiered in 1940 but that is not necessarily indicative of composition date.

The first Trio is a standard four-movement late-Romantic affair though its opening paragraphs sound loose and worryingly diffuse, a feeling happily dissipated by the lightly dancing second subject and thereafter the music’s roughly Schubertian-to-Mendelssohnian syntax is not wholly obscured by Brahmsian intimations. The Scherzo and Trio features rather madcap pizzicati over an earnest piano, somewhat reminiscent of Brahms’ Horn Trio, but the Andantino is the movement that most markedly reveals O’Brien’s debt to Brahms in its distinguished, eloquent nobility. The finale also exudes this element though Paul Mann’s notes also suggest an admixture of Elgar – presumably the Quartet.

This would be exceptionally retrogressive stylistically for 1940 but had it been written in, say, 1910 when O’Brien was in his late 20s, it would be pretty much explicable. The companion trio has structural features very different from its companion. I’d suggest it was written significantly after the B flat major, given its far more tightly constructed first movement and the novelty of its Air with variations including a Scherzo. That ten-minute opening movement is sinewy and whilst it too contains dance motifs, of which O’Brien was fond, it does so in a very much more ambiguous and integrated way – so too the craggy fugato. The Air itself breathes nineteenth-century whimsy and the successive variations offer intriguing contrasts and real brevity. The most notable of these eight variations is the funeral march but there’s a delightful sense of time-travelling in this work that rather blindsides listening expectations. The Scherzo and especially its da capo is genuinely exciting and the lively finale, whilst remaining fruitfully unsettled harmonically, ends with a quiet resolution.

The disc ends with two waltzes composed in 1928, salon-styled pieces redolent of Viennese charm.

With Paul Mann’s characteristically perceptive booklet notes and a good, though not especially warm, recording quality the Russian trio of Yuri Kalnits, Alexander Volpov and Oleg Poliansky make a good case for the trios.

Jonathan Woolf


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