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Brush Strokes: New Works for Woodwind Trio
Clyde THOMPSON (b. 1947)
Four Miniatures for Woodwind Trio (1983) [6:19]
Alyssa MORRIS (b. 1984)
Brush Strokes (2014) [10:58]
Zsolt GÁRDONYI (b. 1946)
Three Rondos for Wind Trio (1966) [4:59
Robbie MCCARTHY (b. 1989)
The Blind Men and the Elephant (2014) [12:47]
Libby LARSEN (b. 1950)
Impromptu (1975/1998) [2:46]
Eduardo GRAU (1919-2006)
Trio de la Fiesta Mayor (1953) [9:19]
Athenia Trio
rec. April, May and August 2019, Athens, USA

The most familiar combination of instruments in a woodwind trio is oboe, clarinet and bassoon – the so-called ‘reed trio’. The Athenia Trio is unusual in that it consists of flute – a non-reed instrument – oboe and bassoon. The absence of the clarinet could be a problem, with its enormous range, and the different colours it brings, so I was interested to hear how these three overcome that.

The Athenia Trio is what’s known as a ‘faculty ensemble’ at Ohio University based in Athens Ohio. Which is to say that they - Alison Brown-Sincoff (flute), Michele Fiala (oboe), Matthew Morris (bassoon) - are all members of staff, and are paid by the university to work together to give concerts, to commission new works, and to teach students individually and in ensembles; nice work, if you can get it! They have performed all over the world, and as soon as you listen, you admire the excellence of their ensemble, with a cohesion that only comes with long hours of playing together.

The CD takes its title from the second work on the disc, Alyssa Morris’s Brush Strokes. (The subtitle ‘New Works for Woodwind Trio’ is a little misleading; some of these pieces have been around a long time, e/.g. Grau’s Trio of 1953). Very much ‘bite-size’ music, this; the longest individual movement here is three minutes forty-one seconds. That makes it sound very bitty, which in a sense it is. But there is so much variety, both in the character of the music and the style of its composers that it doesn’t seem to matter, and it certainly held my attention.

It has also been very well recorded, with excellent balance between the three instruments. It feels very intimate because it’s recorded very close up, which is ideal for this small-scale music, and fortunately the players have all taken care to deal with clickety key-work on their instruments, thus overcoming a problem that frequently afflicts woodwind recordings.

It’s not surprising that the mischievous spirits of Les Six seem to hover close by in much of this music. The composers of that group, notably Milhaud and Poulenc, wrote beautifully for wind instruments, often preferring their cooler sound to that of strings. That playfulness, together with rhythmic complexity and a strangely euphonious bitonality is certainly present in Clyde Thompson’s Four Miniatures, delightful character pieces, each one over all too soon.

The title work, Brush Strokes by Alyssa Morris, comes next. This four movement suite evokes the work of four painters; in order, Monet and his depictions of water in motion; Seurat’s pointillisme, suggested with complex staccato patterns; Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night, tranquil yet lonely; and Pollock, alla Habanera, with the bassoon doggedly keeping the rhythmic shape while the other two hurtle around madly.

Not for the first time listening to this CD, I was struck, in Gárdonyi’s Three Rondos, by the sensitivity of Michele Fiala’s oboe playing. It’s such a difficult instrument to control, especially in its lower register, and she manages to blend her tone subtly with the other instruments. As the Hungarian composer himself acknowledges in his note, the French influence is evident again here in these delightful little pieces, composed when he was still a student in Budapest.

Robbie McCarthy, who wrote the next piece, the intriguingly titled The Blind Men and the Elephant, claims to be the only composer who also works as a car mechanic; and who are we to argue with him! Apparently he travels round the USA teaching people how to restore classic cars, and in his spare time writes instrumental music. These tracks, for me, are the highlights of the disc; not only is it a witty and entertaining little piece, it also introduced me to a fable I had not encountered before. Six blind men examine an elephant; the first feels the animal’s sturdy sides and declares him to be like a wall; the second comes across the smooth, sharp tusk, so thinks the elephant must be like a spear; the third grabs the tail, and is reminded of a snake – and so on. It’s a brilliant illustration of the saying ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, and each elephantine description is followed by a little genre piece.

Musical works with spoken texts are not uncommon; there’s Peter and the Wolf, the best-known of all, there’s Luciano Berio’s Opus Number Zoo, like the present work written for a wind ensemble, Hindemith’s Sonata for tenor horn, where the players have to recite a poem. And I’m sure someone has done a Winnie the Pooh work for wind, where extracts from the stories can be read between the numbers; wish I could remember who that was……

Libby Larsen’s catchy Impromptu comes next, reminding me that this gifted American composer deserves to be heard here in the UK much more often than she is. And the programme is completed by the only work by a composer not still with us, Eduardo Grau, who died in 2006 at the age of 87. He was born in Barcelona, but lived for most of his life in Argentina, where he was lucky enough to be taught by Manuel de Falla, who moved to Argentina in later life (though his remains were buried in Cadiz Cathedral).

Grau’s Trio de la Festa Mayor (Trio of the Great Festival) does have a Spanish feel to it, in that the melodies have a folk-song feel to them. Perhaps the most striking movement is the second, Oración, where the bassoon playing of Matthew Morris comes to the fore. He plays beautifully, but with an unusual tone-colour closer to the now, alas, largely extinct French ‘buffet’ bassoon. One or two moments of uncertain intonation here from the group, but nothing serious.

This is a lovely disc; the Athenias play so very well together, and convey strongly their sheer pleasure in the music. They also deserve to be strongly recommended for bringing to life so much attractive music for this unusual combination.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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