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The King’s Alchemist:
British String Trios
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) 
Prelude and Fugue for string trio, Op 24 (1938) [8:45]
Hugh WOOD (b.1932)
Ithaka for string trio, Op 61 (2016) [9:40]
Sally BEAMISH (b.1956)
The King’s Alchemist for string trio (2013) [10:45]
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
String Trio in G major (1931) [21:07]
Eblana String Trio
rec. 24-26 April 2019, Recital Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, UK

Gerald Finzi’s Prelude and Fugue for string trio, Op 24 (1938) is anything but an academic exercise. Standing as the only piece of chamber music that he composed for string ensemble, it is hardly typical of his perceived pastoral style. This contrapuntal music makes use of exquisitely devised dissonances and presents a more astringent atmosphere than expected. One reviewer has suggested that it owes much to the plaintive mood of Peter Warlock’s The Curlew. This Trio was written as a tribute to R O Morris, who had been one of Finzi’s music teachers.

For me, the most significant work on this CD is Hugh Wood’s Ithaca (2016). The original inspiration was the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s (1863-1933) poem, Ithaka. The composer has declared that “I suppose this piece is a sort of mini-symphonic poem – it is at least programme music.” Certainly, the music takes the listener on a journey, analogous to Ulysses/Odysseus’ homeward voyage. Every school child will recall the hero’s trials and tribulations: the Laestrygonians, the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops, and the sea-god Poseidon. The journey is long. There are all kinds of challenges, intellectual revelations and pleasures. Hugh Wood has used fugal exposition to represent the long journey, contrasting with several lyrical interludes.  Typically, he balances intense drama with revelatory lyricism. There is a clear analogy between Ulysses’ voyage and humankind’s journey through life. The impact of the music reflects the rigours of the journey as well as the invocation of the peaceful Isle of Ithaca itself. It is a splendid work.

Sally Beamish’s The King’s Alchemist for string trio (2013) is also a mini-symphonic poem. The details of the underlying programme are explained in the liner notes written by the composer. It is set at the inspiring edifice of Stirling Castle. The date is prior to 1513, when King James IV is in residence, shortly before his death at Flodden Field. His guests included the composer Robert Carver and the “bizarre John Damian, a European alchemist who charmed the King with promises of creating gold from base metals.” Damian was clearly a charlatan. He distilled whisky as experiments, was big on organising entertainments and largely failed to achieve anything useful by his alchemy (apart from the whisky). Then, there was his attempt at manned flight. This failed; he ended up in the castle midden.  Sally Beamish writes, “I was enchanted by this colourful figure, and the trio reflects some aspects of his story. It takes the form of four variations on the French folksong ‘L’Homme armé’ – a theme used by Carver in one of his masses and perhaps appropriate to the court of the high-living James IV, who was fond of holding shooting competitions in the beautiful Great Hall of Stirling Castle.”

The music is immediately approachable; there is nothing challenging. The overall impression is of a bewitching soundscape, appropriate to the subject matter.

The earliest work on this CD is E J Moeran’s Trio for violin, viola and cello, completed in 1931. Moeran created chamber music which possessed “distinction of thought and clarity and precision of style.”  There is no doubt that this is an “English” work, yet there is no direct quotation of folk-tunes.  The entire Trio is well-written for the present instrumental forces.  There is a good balance between lyricism and some discrete astringency. The heart of the piece is the elegiac second movement adagio.  The work was dedicated “To the Pasquier Trio” who gave the premiere performance on 20 October 1931, during a Music Society concert at the St John’s Institute, Tufton Street, Westminster. 

My only complaint is the stingy 50 minutes playing time. Surely another English Trio could have been found – even a wee one. The CD company will no doubt argue that this is reflected in the relatively moderate price of the disc. The liner notes, by various hands, are excellent. They are conveniently divided into two sections: the music and the composers.  The performances by the Eblana String Trio are always inspiring and convincing. The recording is clear and luminous throughout. Altogether, it is a refreshingly well-balanced and imaginative programme.

John France

Eblana String Trio:
Jonathan Martindale (violin), Lucy Nolan (viola), Peggy Nolan (cello)

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