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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Trio (1914) [27.58]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Piano Trio Op.3 (1881) [31.07]
Vienna Piano Trio
rec. 2019, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany
SACD/CD Hybrid, Stereo/Surround 5.0; reviewed in surround
MDG 9422130-6 SACD [59.05]

Ravel had been considering writing a piano trio for several years and in early 1914 he finally started composition. It proved as difficult as he had expected and in August when France entered the First World War he paused yet again. But having decided to join up he felt the need to finish the trio before he did so and, according to Roger Nichols, did five months work in five weeks. The result is sometimes described as rather uneven with a less considered finale following three subtle and powerful movements. Nonetheless one is hard put to it to find a more important Piano Trio in the entire 20th century, Shostakovich alone matching it for gravity and skill. The Vienna Piano Trio have, for the second time, avoided that coupling. Indeed they have yet to record the Shostakovich. Their first CD of the Ravel, coupled with Schumann and Beethoven, came out eight years ago when the ensemble consisted of Wolfgang Redik, violin, Matthias Gredler, cello and the founding member Stefan Mendl on the piano. That performance seems to have pleased Michael Cookson (review). Now, with their latest change of personnel, the cellist Clemens Hagen having taken over from Matthias Grendler, and with American violinist David McCarrol now well established in his role, they have recorded it again. The obvious technical change is that this is hi-res surround and the acoustic of the same recording venue is reproduced with more accuracy. I have not heard that earlier disc but am very impressed by the power and subtlety on display here. Repeated listening to the Ravel only serves to underscore its greatness, even that finale sounding convincing in the hands of this, one of our foremost ensembles. Ravel uses the full dynamic range of these instruments, doing it with the most amazing range of instrumental colouration. This work alone makes the SACD worth purchasing.

The coupling is one of the common ones in the catalogue, the Chausson Op.3 Trio. The notes by Elizabeth Deckers are almost apologetic. Whilst it may be true to describe the young Ernst Chausson as inexperienced, this trio has immense passion and power and strongly suggests that the oblivion into which much of his music disappeared after his untimely death at the age of 44 is not really justified. I would urge interested readers who buy this disc because of the Ravel to pay close attention to this substantial 'filler'. The Vienna Piano Trio give their best to lesser-known as well as more famous pieces (note their excellent SACD of trios by Heinrich von Herzogenberg). Chausson is the richest of fare in his first movement with a rapturous and lyrical slow movement. The influence of Chausson's teacher César Franck is clear when the earlier themes return in the finale but I have never believed that following earlier ideas is a bad thing. Here it works to bring this excellent trio to a moving conclusion.

Engineering standards are as high as usual with the team of Dabringhaus and Grimm maintaining their 'Sound Ideal', noted in all their booklets, of reproducing a natural acoustic with recordings free of manipulation. High recommended.

Dave Billinge

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