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René de BOISDEFFRE (1838-1906)
Piano Trio in E flat major, Op 10 No 1 [30:13]
Piano Trio in G minor, Op 32 No 2 [30:10]
Suite in D major, Op 83 [17:04]
Au bord d’un ruisseau, Op 52 [3:11]
Pawel Kukliński (violin); Tadeusz Samerek (cello); Anna Mikolon (piano)
rec. 2018, Radio Gdańsk, Gdańsk, Poland
Premiere recordings

Back in 2016, I had my first encounter with the music of René de Boisdeffre when I reviewed the first CD of his music for piano and violin, also on the very-enterprising Polish Acte Préalable label.

Born at Vesoul in eastern France, Boisdeffre died in Vézelise, less than 100 miles away. His output – where he appears to owe much to Gounod and Massenet in his vocal music, and Lalo and Saint-Saëns in his instrumental - includes some sixty chamber-music works, for which he was awarded the Prix Chartier, piano pieces, vocal music, and a handful of orchestral works. As a consequence of the above influences, his musical style has been described as ‘quite conservative’.

With this in mind, and the fact that his music, while ‘quite conservative’, is nevertheless expressive, melodious, and well-crafted, I was pleased to be able to make further acquaintance with his chamber music, when this new CD of works for piano trio was released.

Unfortunately, I failed to notice that both the pianist and violinist on the earlier CD were different performers on the new CD, with, of course, the addition of a cellist. Furthermore, while the first CD was recorded in Treviso, Italy, the other originates from Radio Gdańsk, in Poland.

The very opening of the first Trio in E flat major rather sums it up for me. The violin has a thin tone, which made me want to check out the original score to see whether Boisdeffre had asked for the mute to be used - which was not, in fact, the case. The cello has a similarly thin tone at times, and, as the music progresses, there are places where intonation is inaccurate. Furthermore, there’s a short run in semiquavers (sixteenth-notes) which pops up all over the place, and, on a number of occasions, the two string-players don’t always quite cut it, as far as clear articulation is concerned. The piano, too, feels very closely-miked, and the sense of spaciousness on the earlier CD is missing here, which a side-by-side comparison readily reveals.

The opening movement is conceived as a conventional sonata-allegro, followed by a song-like Andante, which leads directly into the elfin-like Scherzo, and where the string-playing certainly appears to buck up quite considerable. The Trio presents a calmer contrast, where again the performance from the strings is noticeably more assured, especially in terms of an overall warmer and richer timbre. Boisdeffre relies on his contrapuntal expertise for the Finale, which opens in appropriate fugal manner. Again, though, there are some skimped violin runs, where greater finger-dexterity and control might have helped. About half-way through the movement, Boisdeffre appears to go into ‘religious’ mode, with an extended Adagio sostenuto section, which merely acts as a short prelude to the coda and again features some counterpoint. The ‘religious’ section almost has the last word, but the composer wisely tacks on a conventional tonic-dominant ending, so that the work closes with a sufficient sense of jollity and high spirits.

The second Trio in G minor opens with a somewhat lugubrious, bi-partite Prélude; the first section is in the trio’s main key, with a contrasting middle. There is, as the sleeve-note suggests, an almost Bach-like reverence to the writing, and, given the key, a slight resemblance to the opening movement of Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto, which predated Boisdeffre’s Trio by over fifteen years. In fact, the similarity extends to the second movement – an effectively-written effervescent Scherzo in the relative major (Saint-Saëns had favoured a different major key), but where Boisdeffre’s isn’t quite as entertaining, and again there are occasional slight issues in terms of articulation and intonation. The Beethoven-like slow movement (‘Andante’) eventually begins to show that both strings are actually capable of producing the fullness of sound which this music simply begs for, but it does seem somewhat bizarre that it has taken over half of the work to get here. The final section, for example, where violin and cello are in unison, two octaves apart, is as moving as anything you might come to expect from music of this generation, but then, in the turbulent Finale, those earlier few rough edges start reappearing, particularly with intonation. However, the thrust of the music itself keeps everything going, and the performance emerges unscathed overall.

The four-movement Suite in D major is a slighter work, opening with a pleasant-enough Prélude, where much of the musical content relies on the linear interplay between all three instruments. The Menuet is tuneful and lyrical, once more making good use of swapping themes between each player. The soulful Romance tugs at the heartstrings to some degree, but always feels more successful when the cello, rather than violin, is charged with singing out the melody. The closing Tarentelle rounds things off as effectively as any other fast dance-form, though Boisdeffre never needs much prompting to put the brakes on, and luxuriate in a contrastingly lyrical section, where his best sense of melodic invention also tends to reside. The tempo picks up again though, before the composer reintroduces the earlier lyrical section, which – you’ve guessed it – leads to a short coda, and another effective close.

Au bord d’un ruisseau (Beside a Brook) is a little stocking-filler, which the composer arranged for a number of instrumental combinations. The piano’s rippling arpeggios suggest the water flowing, over which the two strings weave a gentle counterpoint, and all cast as a miniature rondo.

There is a fair amount of attractive and undemanding music on this CD, as there was with the earlier one for piano and violin alone, but, whereas on that occasion, the playing could always be relied upon to come up trumps on the day, the same cannot quite be said about the personnel on the new CD. Granted, Acte Préalable has an exhaustive catalogue of works, many of which are from the pens of composers who have been all but forgotten. There are, for example, currently eight CDs of Boisdeffre’s music available, from music for flute and piano, viola and piano (two discs), cello and piano, violin and piano, oboe and piano, piano trio, and choral music. Purely from an economic standpoint, it would seem virtually impossible to engage leading international artists to record these niche works in some of best studio facilities around. On the other hand, if they’re not all played and recorded to the highest possible standard, this can have a decidedly negative impact, something from which better-established repertoire is more immune.

The playing on this CD certainly wouldn’t alienate you from René de Boisdeffre’s eminently-attractive and well-crafted music, but it does seem a pity that when originally searching for two performers and a sympathetic recording-venue for the earlier CD, the label couldn’t have recruited an equally-empathetic and talented third team-member, and then, perhaps, used the same recording facilities too. This might have ensured greater continuity in performance, and also obviated the slight sense of disappointment I have felt, while listening to this second CD.

Philip R Buttall

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