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International Connections 2
Nicolas BACRI (b.1961)
A Smiling Suite [11:00]
Liqing YANG (1942-2013)
Trio [10:37]
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Celebration Trio [8:59]
Jonathan HARVEY (1939-2012)
Clarinet Trio [8:05]
Wolfram WAGNER (b.1962)
Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano [14:47]
Kee Yong KAM (b.1938)
And the Fallen Petals [3:08]
Guido López GAVILAN (b.1944)
Como un antiguo bolero [7:05]
Peter SCULTHORPE (1929-2014)
Reef Singing [2:38]
Verdehr Trio
rec. 2008-15
The Making of a Medium - Volume 24

The Verdehr Trio has released over 30 recordings, most on the Crystal Records label, many of which are in the series “The Making of a Medium” which has featured works largely written or arranged for the Trio, which proudly boasts of having commissioned over 200 new works. Based for many years at the Michigan State University, many of those commissioned works have come from American composers, but the full extent of their international outlook is revealed in two of those “Making of a Medium” recordings which have the subtitle, “International Connections”.

The second of those programmes opens with music by the French composer Nicolas Bacri. His five-movement A Smiling Suite is a taut, neatly written and highly accessible work which also happily showcases each of the three players – violinist Walter Verdehr, clarinettist Else Ludewig-Verdehr and pianist Silvia Roederer – in writing which is as idiomatic as it is distinguished. Bacri originally wrote it for piano solo as, in the composer’s own words, “very serious entertainment for people that really love, on the one hand, Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, and Stravinsky and Prokofiev on the other”. But this is far more than mere pastiche. Perhaps there are hints of Prokofiev throughout, but otherwise it is a most distinguished work of charming originality, which is not unreservedly cheerful (the second movement –“Menuet lent” - has a certain wistful quality about it ) but is aptly named in that the charm of the music and the delicacy of the writing cannot but make the attentive listener smile.

Chinese composer Yang Liqing had the distinction of being one of the first to be sent abroad to study after the Cultural Revolution. In 2000 he was appointed President of the Shanghai Conservatory, and two years later received the commission to write a piece from the Verdehr Trio. His administrative duties in Shanghai prevented him from progressing with the work until his retirement in 2010. The title Trio tells us rather more than the obvious instrumental element of the work, it also reflects Yang’s concept of three “musical traditions; the Chinese, the Avant Garde, and the European Classical”. However, while all three elements are evident in the work, Yang has melded them together so effectively that there is no sense of either conflict or juxtaposition. Perhaps the most obvious comparison is with the exoticism of both Messiaen (the passage after 4:03 could almost have come from the Quartet for the End of Time) and Martinů (again, from 6:38, we have a passage which could certainly have come from the Czech master’s pen), but overall this is a highly original work in its own right, a seamless flow of musical invention with some highly effective instrumental writing. It also demands both a measure of virtuosity and dramatic flair which the Verdehrs reveal in ample abundance.

Two English composers feature next. Peter Dickinson’s three-movement Celebration Trio is the third of three commissions he received from the Verdehr Trio and dates from 2009. It is a musical response to John Heath-Stubbs’ poem, The Unicorns, about the capture of two unicorns in Africa for scientific research. It opens with a sprightly Fugue which “celebrates the eventual capture of the unicorns”. The following movement, featuring a sensuous interweaving of clarinet and violin over slowly treading chords from the piano, is labelled “Lullaby” and depicts the singing of a young girl in an attempt to lure one of the creatures. The final movement, “Dance”, is another attempt to lure one of the unicorns by encouraging it to dance until it impales itself on a tree. The music has a suitably infectious and almost hypnotic momentum, and if the story seems a little dark, rest assured that the two unicorns, once captured, fell in love with each other and escaped. Jonathan Harvey’s Clarinet Trio was a 2005 commission from the Verdehrs and was inspired by the composer’s study of Stockhausen’s serial technique. It is the most adventurous and challenging (in all senses of the word) piece in the programme, but such is the Verdehrs’ wonderful fluency and self-assurance, that it comes across as a vivid and at times delightfully skittish exploration of the instrumental timbres.

The Austrian composer Wolfram Wagner was commissioned by the Verdehrs to write his Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano in 2005 and each of its four movements highlights a different musical device. The “Prelude” focuses on motivic development, a small melodic cell urgently chased around by the three members of the ensemble. The “Scherzo” focuses on counterpoint in some lively canonic writing, and the “Intermezzo” features a rich and highly expressive melodic line with a magical moment (at 2:00) where the clarinet carries on the line from the violin and ratchets up the tension. The “Finale”, in the composer’s own words, focuses on “the development within an excited, dancing motion”. As with all the works on the disc, this is a finely written work which shows off the superb musicianship and technical accomplishment of the Trio, but which, more than that, is a valuable addition to the repertory and deserves repeated hearings.

The final three items in the programme began their lives in rather different guises and were subsequently arranged for the Verdehr Trio. Malaysian-born Singaporean composer Kam Kee Yong took a piece for violin and piano based on a Tang Dynasty Poem, And the Fallen Petal. A graceful, gently flowing and tranquil piece, it is full of typically Chinese descriptive gestures. Cuban composer Guido López Gavilán rearranged a work for cello and piano which, as with Kam’s piece, celebrates his ethnic heritage, although in a highly subtle manner, disguising its bolero character by means of some smoothed-off rhythmic edges and an overriding sense of calm. Finally, Australian Peter Sculthorpe’s Reef Singing was a solo piece for clarinet written especially for Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, which the Trio themselves rearranged and often used as an encore piece. With its atmospheric piano introduction, soaring violin theme and gentle conclusion featuring all three instruments, it also makes a suitably reflective conclusion to a deeply fascinating and musically uplifting recital.

Marc Rochester

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