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George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Piano Trio No.1 in G minor (1897) [28:12]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Trio in A minor (1914) [27:03]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Introduction and Allegro, for piano trio (1932) [14:57]
Amatis Trio
rec. 2018, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, München
CAVI-MUSIC 8553477 [69:40]

Youthful adventures and a mature masterpiece form the programme for the Amatis Trio’s first CD, though it has to be said that the masterpiece is full of youthful vigour and the early works possess considerable poise and precociousness, and signpost accomplishments to come.

George Enescu was just 16 years old when he composed his G minor Piano Trio during his studies at the Paris Conservatory, and though there are obvious debts to Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms – he did previously study at the Vienna Conservatory, after all – there is also astonishing confidence, striking structural coherence and a strong independent voice. The Piano Trio was first performed in 1898 in a private salon (by Enescu himself, with his patron and the work’s dedicatee Elena Bibescu at the keyboard, and Richard Loys on cello), but the score was believed lost until its recent rediscovery. The first public performance took place in a small Romanian museum in 2016; there have now been a couple of recordings including one by the Enescu Trio.

The Amatis Trio, playing with unblemished virtuosity here and throughout the programme, make the most of the dynamism: the slicing first chord of the Allegro molto vivace springs forth with rawness and bite, the unison scales race impetuously and with a nervous thrill, the accents border on abrasive at times. But, then the light comes in, Hausmann’s violin sweetens and the textures become lucid. However, while the second subject may have a Brahmsian chorale-like calm, Enescu decorates it with startling keyboard-acrobatics: sparkling ripples that skate over the ivories like glittering flickers. Only a teenager would dare! The cello has a prominent role and Shepherd’s warm tone is eloquent. The almost schizophrenic alternations between anger and delicacy are brilliantly shaped by the Amatis Trio; however fickle, whether furious or fantastical, the textures are sculptured with terrific care and lucidity, and the formal signposts and landmarks are persuasively articulated.

Some commentators have detected the influence of Massenet and Fauré, Enescu’s teachers in Paris, but I don’t – or at least, only superficially in some of the decorative flourishes, that are perhaps more probably a consequence of the freedom of the composer’s native folk music. Indeed, the second movement begins with an actual folk melody, the variations and elaborations of which the Amatis Trio treat with gentleness and care – there’s some lovely fairy-light octave tip-toeing from the violin – though they never let the underlying dance flag. And, they shift convincingly into, and negotiate the more elliptical return from, the melancholy song of the central Andante episode, with its pulsing heartstrings, surging sweetness and ‘classical’ embellishments. Mengjie Han balances steadiness with relaxed easefulness at the start of the ensuing Andante; the melodiousness of the Amatis’ playing here makes me feel that Brahms would have been proud to have composed this beautiful, effortlessly flowing movement. The final Presto is a joyful romp, but one which, as Enescu exercises his contrapuntal muscles, is ever light on its Mendelssohn-ian feet and does not neglect to include a welcome respite of reposeful melody.

Benjamin Britten’s Introduction and Allegro for piano trio was similarly a student composition (written when Britten was at the RCM) which also had a private premiere – in the home of Britten’s teacher, Frank Bridge – and then languished unpublished and unperformed, until a concert at Wigmore Hall in 1986. Here one can detect a much stronger French influence, and in particular that of Ravel’s 1914 Piano Trio in A minor and the latter composer’s own Introduction and Allegro, for harp, clarinet, flute and string quartet. Out go the Viennese structures, in come atmospheric, fluctuating colours and textures. The Amatis Trio pick up their pointillistic brushes and apply the hues and textures with meticulousness, cohering delicacy and strength. The lines are etched with precision: one senses the beams of steel within the most gracious edifice. The engineers have served the music superbly too: the sound is sculpted marble, even when the violin’s wisps become barely-there whispers, the cello’s pizzicatos pad lightly, and the piano trips merrily up and down the scales with blithe insouciance. Britten does not neglect his teacher’s elegiac pastoralism either. There’s a lovely speculative quality about the Amatis’ exploration of the diverse material, without there ever being a moment of doubt.

Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor separates the two student compositions. The Modéré sways like a languid breeze, then whips up a storm, then settles into quiet, lazy indulgence. The strings’ tone is beautifully tender, the piano motifs gently but crisply defined, and the movement has the vibrancy and preciousness of a medieval tapestry. There’s a different type of medievalism in the Passacaille which is sombre, dignified, spiritual; Han’s final statement of the theme plummets back through the centuries. In between, the sparkling spray of Pantoum teasingly eludes one clutches; in the final movement comes welcome relief, relaxation and exuberance – and finally, thrilling jouissance.

I listened to this disc during the recent heatwave: the Amatis often make Ravel’s music trickle like cool, soothing water. A fantastic debut disc.

Claire Seymour
Lea Hausmann (violin); Samuel Shepherd (cello); Mengjie Han (piano)

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