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Trains of Thought Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano [12:13] Viet CUONG (b.1991)
Trains of Thought [12:18] Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano [16:06] Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Romance, (from The Gadfly), Op.97 [3:05]
A Spin Through Moscow (from Moscow, Cheryomushki) [2:12] Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Fantaisie Concertante on Themes from Semiramide [12:17]
rec. 2016, Earl & Danielle Linehan Concert Hall, University of Maryland, USA DELOSDE3543 [58:31]
The Poulenc Trio was founded in 2003 and has certainly made its mark in promoting the somewhat limited repertory for double-reed chamber music. Here they have added to the two principal works of the repertory – both by French composers of the mid-20th century – a newly commissioned piece by the 28-year-old Californian composer, Viet Cuong, and three arrangements of pieces by Shostakovich and Rossini. The helpful booklet notes read rather weirdly, not least because of some awkward linguistic dead ends. I baulk at the word “thusly”, but since the notes are described as being “adapted from a text by Kai Christensen” we might excuse such linguistic eccentricities as either poetic licence or translator’s constipation.
The austere, mock-dramatic opening of the Poulenc work finds the bassoon of Bryan Young propounding a wonderfully assertive recitative, joined after a while by the plaintive tones of Liang Wang’s oboe. But soon Irina Kaplan Lande sets them off on a joyful romp, full of darting ideas and mischievous changes of direction. Helped by an exceptionally immediate and richly detailed recording, the Poulenc Trio brings out the humour, wit and occasional touches of both solemnity and sentimentality, playing in a refreshingly direct and forthright manner. They ooze pathos in the second movement, and give to the third an infectious playfulness. This is highly accomplished playing and makes for a fabulously arresting opening to a disc which provides few opportunities for the mind to drift. In short, this is playing which grabs you by the neck and holds you in its thrall without once releasing its grip.
Composed in 2012 especially for the Poulenc Trio, Viet Cuong’s Trains of Thought not only lends its title to the disc, but also lives up to it with an impulsive, driving momentum which at times has you on the edge of the seat. Here is a tremendously invigorating performance, beautifully shaped and balanced, drawing every last ounce of interest from the music. The quick fire interplay between the musicians is impressive. Cuong has written effectively for the ensemble, recognising not just the special characteristics of the two double reed instruments, including some unusual effects from the bassoon, but also that special quality of quick-wittedness which distinguishes this very fine trio of musicians. My only reservation comes with the somewhat damp squib of an ending – Cuong seems simply to run out of ideas.
The two Shostakovich arrangements were made especially for the Trio by Anatoly Trofimov, and work well. There is a lovely warmth to the famous passage from The Gadfly with Wang and Young adding a subtle touch of vibrato to give it an appropriately sentimental feel, while A Spin Through Moscow, with its unsubtle nods towards the chase music from the silent comedies of Shostakovich’s film-going youth, has a suitably breathless feel to it, although we can only admire the inexhaustible virtuosity of these musicians in keeping this unremittingly energetic music going without any hint of tiring.
There is musical fun a-plenty in the Françaix Trio, Wang managing to make his oboe positively laugh at one point in the first movement, with Young and Lande ready to follow suit. This is a bubbling, light-hearted work which, as with so much of Françaix’s writing for winds, masks an immense understanding of the potential of the individual instruments with music of such attractiveness and joviality that one forgets the enormous skill involved in bringing it all to life. The third movement Andante gives both Wang and Young a golden opportunity to show off the rich lyricism possible on their respective instruments; and they do so with undisguised relish. But Life is the keyword here; this is a truly vivacious, life-affirming performance which cannot help but dispel any feelings of gloom or despondency in the listener. Lovely stuff!
The inclusion of a medley of Rossini themes arranged by Charles Triébert and Eugene Jancourt, might seem an odd way to end a disc given over to music otherwise written in the last 100 years. It fits into a programme which seems more than anything else to focus on musical fun and high spirits, but I am not convinced that this has much value other than to add substance to a recording which is obviously having to root around to find enough worthwhile repertory. Much as the wind players work to inject different personalities into their instruments, the limited scope and distinctive tones of oboe and bassoon soon begin to tire, and while Lande certainly does a marvellous job in adding colour and variety through the piano part, one is left to admire the playing while trying to ignore a lurking suspicion that, musically, this just does not work. However, it does provide a marvellous exhibition of the outstanding collective virtuosity and unbounded high spirits of the Poulenc Trio,