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Trios from the City of Big Shoulders
Ernst BACON (1898-1990)
Trio no. 2 for violin, cello, and piano (1987) [31:15]
Leo Sowerby (1895-1968)
Trio for violin, violoncello and pianoforte, H. 312 (1953) [37:02]
Lincoln Trio
rec. June 29-July 1, 2020, Murray and Michele Allen Recital Hall, DePaul University, Chicago
CEDILLE CDR90000203 [68:17]

Carl Sandburg’s 1914 poem Chicago opens with the following lines:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders[.]

Sandburg goes on to call the city “wicked” and “brutal,” but then challenges the reader, “come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” Chicago inspires deep affection in the hearts of its natives, even if it remains something of an enigma to outsiders.

Cedille’s new disc is an all-Chicago special. Ernst Bacon was born and educated in Chicago, but spent the majority of his adult life on the east and west coasts. Leo Sowerby was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then moved to Chicago at 14 and never left. The Lincoln Trio (Desirée Ruhstrat, violinist; David Cunliffe, cellist; Marta Aznavoorian, pianist) took its name from what it refers to in its biography as “the heartland of the United States, the land of Lincoln.” (The state of Illinois dubs itself “the Land of Lincoln” on its license plates.) The record label Cedille is Chicago-based, and is proud to produce many recordings featuring local musicians such as Rachel Barton Pine and Easley Blackwood.

According to the thorough booklet notes of Elinor Olin, Sowerby complained that he was “accused by right-wingers of being too dissonant and cacophonous, and by leftists of being old-fashioned and derivative.” Although this may have been true in the early 20th century, to these modern ears, the two Chicagoans are firmly conservative in their compositional styles, especially when compared to the academically-inclined serialists in vogue during the post-WWII period.

Ernst Bacon is a prime example of an excellent American composer who “fell through the cracks.” The winner of a Pulitzer Fellowship and three Guggenheim Awards, Bacon’s works somehow never found regular favor with performers. Although Bacon’s songs on texts of Emily Dickinson are still occasionally performed by singers in the United States, his symphonic works languish in obscurity, and the late chamber pieces are only now being rediscovered more than a quarter century after his death. Interested listeners should seek out Ford’s Theatre, a moving musical soliloquy on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Bacon’s second piano trio is in six movements, in a rough slow-moderate-slow-moderate pattern, with only movements four and six gathering significant momentum. The harmonic language of the trio is neither spiky nor simple. The overall impression given is that of Ravel crossed with Shostakovich. There are bits of folk material present, and even a some jazz thrown into the second movement via some lazily-swung rhythms. The slower movements--particularly the first section of the first movement—ramble and ultimately outstay their welcome, but the second half of the first movement, fourth, and sixth movements are impressive in their rough energy. There is an “Americaness” to these movements that is difficult to pin down. It is not the folksy, cornpone America of Aaron Copland’s Rodeo or Billy the Kid, but it is also not the slick cityscape of Leonard Bernstein. It is something more natural, something closer at times to the spirit of Charles Ives, and it convinces more and more on each hearing. This trio is an uneven work, but it deserves to be experienced in the concert hall.

Leo Sowerby desperately needed an editor’s intervention when penning his 1953 trio. Although Olin quotes a friend of Sowerby as saying that this was Sowerby’s “best work,” one that would “become part of the permanent chamber music literature,” the trio seems bloated, and frankly, musically uninteresting. The first movement (“Slow and Solemn”) crawls along for the first four minutes of its 14.5 minute runtime, and even when it picks up steam, it never gives the impression that Sowerby had a musical destination in mind. There is an extended buildup to a quasi-fugal section that meanders contrapuntally until hitting a wall, then builds again to what sounds like a four-minute extended coda. There is no unique melodic or harmonic voice here, nothing to set Sowerby apart from many other conservative composers of the 1950s. The issue is perhaps one of texture; all three instruments seem to play at all times, with few moments of repose for any one or two instruments. The second movement offers an improvement on this, though as in the first movement, the melodic and harmonic material seems too parched to justify a thirteen minute runtime. The final movement is the most successful of the three, beginning with a muscular piano solo that recalls the last movement of the Chausson Concert. The rhythmic material here is more varied, helping to clarify the structure of the movement as it shifts through a variety of sections.

The performances of the Lincoln Trio are stellar. The tight ensemble, spot-on intonation, and evangelical zeal of the playing make one feel that these are the best-possible renditions of these scores. The recorded sound is excellent, capturing the natural balance one would hear in a moderate-sized hall.

Richard Masters
Previous reviews: Stephen Greenbank ~ Jonathan Woolf

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