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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Eight Pieces (1910), Op.83
Philon Trio
rec. October 2017, Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada
ANALEKTA AN28923 [34:00]

We all like a good mystery, and there are plenty of mysteries about this CD release. For a start, why is it so short? Other recordings of Bruch’s Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano either pair it with something equally (often more) substantial, or add two or more worthwhile works to the programme; Janet Hilton, Nobuko Imai and Roger Vignoles, on their Chandos recording (and my strong recommendation for the Bruch) include both Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen and Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, while Merete Westergaard, Søren Birkelund and Ulrikke Høst-Madsen (on Danacord) imaginatively include little-known works by Paul Juon and Wilhelm Voigt.

Of course, in these times of downloads, when most listeners purchase only the tracks they want rather than complete CD recordings, the issue of playing length on the physical CD is of less relevance (although those of us who still prefer to buy the physical product like to feel we are getting our money’s worth, and the benefit of learning something new from what is piggy-backed on to what we already know, is something on which our download friends too often miss out).

Another mystery is why has it sat in the can for three years before being released, and why does the finished product contain the kind of rough edges we might reasonably expect to have been smoothed out by careful post-production editing? My suggestion for all this, for what it’s worth, is that, since 2020 marks the centenary of Bruch’s death, the recording was made with this year in view as a release date, and they simply did not feel that there was any other repertory suitable for a Bruch centenary tribute. Perhaps it is worth noting that Giovanni Punzi, Eva Katrine Dalsgaard, and Tanja Zapolski combine the Eight Pieces with Bruch’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Viola on their Brilliant Classics release.

Even more mysterious is the picture of an abandoned green umbrella on the cover. But I imagine there is no obvious solution to this mystery.

There might also seem to be something of a mystery behind the Philon Trio itself. Its name comes from a Greek word for love, affection and close friendship, and it was formed in 2011 at the Basel Music Academy in Switzerland by three students from very disparate backgrounds. David Dias da Silva was born in Canada, brought up in Portugal and studied clarinet in Portugal and Montreal. Adam Newman comes from Liverpool in the UK (which links him to Bruch, who was Conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic during the early 1880s) and studied viola in London. Pianist Camilla Köhnken was born in Bonn, studied in Cologne and New York, and recently concluded academic studies in Bern. With such widely differing backgrounds, it is worth noting that, as a Trio, they fully coalesce musically.

Bruch’s inspiration for writing the Eight Pieces so late in life – he was 72 – was his own son, who was a professional clarinettist, and while the instrumental combination had been used before, Bruch certainly explored its potential to its full in pieces which are, in many ways, so disparate that they really are eight individual character pieces rather than a suite. Da Silva has a tremendously spiky edge in the breathless, and excitable No.4 (“Allegro agitato”), Newman draws every last ounce of pathos from the soulful viola solo of No.5 (“Rumänische Melodie”), Köhnken skips cheerfully through the delightfully skittish No.7 (“Allegro vivace, ma non troppo”), and all three combine in a truly loving way, intertwining their lines in the final piece (“Moderato”). Every piece is given a reassuringly accomplished performance from this Trio.

As a recording, there are a few rough edges, and the balance is not always equitable, with the piano sometimes seeming unnecessarily recessed and the clarinet occasionally moving in and out of focus. There are terse but informative booklet notes are by Jean-Marie Paul, who is described as National Chairperson (France) of the International Clarinet Association. As for the Philon’s playing, it is assured and their interpretations compelling. There is no mystery; they know what they want to communicate through the music and do it to good effect.

Marc Rochester

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