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Avant l'orage CDR90000212
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Avant l’orage
French String Trios 1926-1939
Henri Tomasi (1901–1971)
Trio à cordes en forme de divertissement (1938)*
Jean Cras (1879–1932)
Trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle (1926)
Émile Goué (1904–1946)
Trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle (1939)
Jean Françaix (1912–1997)
Trio (1933)
Robert Casadesus (1899–1972)
Trio à cordes (1938)*
Gustave Samazeuilh (1877–1967)
Suite en trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle (1937)*
Gabriel Pierné (1863–1937)
Trois pièces en trio (1937)
Black Oak Ensemble
rec. 2021-2022, Chicago
* First Recordings
CEDILLE CDR90000212 [2 CDs: 127]

This is the second album released by the Chicago-based Black Oak Ensemble (Desirée Ruhstrat (violin), Aurélien Fort Pederzoli (viola) and David Cunliffe (cello)) featuring rarely performed string trios by lesser-known composers. They made their recording debut for the Cedille label back in 2019 with Silenced Voices, “an album of intriguing works by six promising, early 20th century Jewish composers originally from Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands” (review). This release is titled Avant l’orage (Before the storm) and is described by Pedrezoli as an album of “very diverse music, full of wit, a lot of lyricism and definitely very unique voices”.

Once again, the ensemble indulges its passion for unjustly neglected string trio repertoire by relatively unknown composers. Apart from the String Trio of Jean Cras, which dates from 1926, all of the others were written on the eve of World War 11. Five of the works, by Casadesus, Pierné, Françaix, Samazeuilh and Tomasi, were dedicated to the eminent Gallic Trio Pasquier, who kept the candle burning for all five during their existence. Since that time, these works have remained mostly dormant.

Henri Tomasi was of Corsican heritage. World War II marked a turning point in his fortunes. Whereas his reputation had been confined to France, he now began to receive international acclaim. In 1927 he won the Grand Prix de Rome. The String Trio “en forme de divertissement” was written in 1938, and is here receiving its World Premiere Recording. After a fairly conservative opening movement, there’s an attractive Nocturne, where a tritone figure on the cello and viola in a barcarolle rhythm bestows a soothing and consoling touch. A catchy folk dance provides the substance for the finale.

The earliest work here is the Trio by Breton-born Jean Cras, penned in 1926. The sea-faring composer not only found the ocean a source of inspiration, but his extensive sea travels brought him into contact with multifarious cultures, and these exoticisms found their way into his music. The Trio is no exception. It was actually composed aboard ship and neatly packs into four movements, its cyclical model paying tribute to Franck. Apart from the slow movement, which is a sad lament, the rest is upbeat and carefree. The jaunty 'guitar' pizzicatos of the third movement are an absolute delight, and the finale is full of energy and highly-charged.

Émile Goué wrote his String Trio in 1939, one of the last works he composed before the outbreak of war. Its confidence reflects the last days of freedom. Albert Roussel seems an abiding influence. Its two outer movements, full of confidence and positivity, frame a slow movement wistful and longing.

A bustling moto perpetuo backed with pizzicatos opens the 1933 Trio by Jean Françaix. There follows a mischievous and playful Scherzo, almost satirical in flavour. The composer’s melodic gifts shine through in the lyrical Andante. The last movement is suffused with Haydnesque wit, reinforced by off-beat pizzicato syncopations, and it’s a pizzicato chord which has the last word.

I’m only familiar with Robert Casadesus as a concert pianist, but Wikipedia reveals that he had a respectable compositional output to his name. His String Trio, titled “Au Trio Pasquier” predates the outbreak of World War 11 by two years. The work is in three movements, conforming to the established fast-slow-fast pattern. The slow movement is the most interesting. Marked Legende, its opening conveys an atmosphere shrouded in mist, an energetic, bouncy arabesque intervenes half way through, before the movement ends in the dreamy and trance-inducing manner it began.

The work by Gustave Samazeuilh is a six-movement suite, here receiving its World Premiere Recording. It dates from 1937. I knew very little about this composer, but discovered he had been a disciple of Claude Debussy, from whom he received some tutoring. He hailed from Bordeaux and studied initially with Chausson, who died prematurely in 1899. He then transferred to d'Indy and Dukas. The impressionistic complexion of his music clearly shows Debussy's influence. His Suite takes the form of a Baroque dance suite. It began life as a piano work, but the composer later rescored it for string trio, and it was widely performed by the Trio Pasquier during the 1930s and 40s. Multi-layered textures, melodic largesse and fluidity run its course. There a beautiful Sarabande mid-way through, languid and hazy. The work ends with an extrovert Forlane.

Gabriel Pierné, the “elder statesman” among the composers in this collection, wrote his Trois pièces en trio for String Trio in 1937. It was one of his last works; he died that same year. The premiere, given by the Trio Pasquier, took place in 1938. The titles of the pieces are:

1) Dédicace sur le nom des frères Pasquier. Modéré sans lenteur
2) Chanson
3) Les trios clercs de Saint-Nicholas. Giocoso

The opening piece employs some delicious impressionist chromatic harmonies and exquisitely sculpted interwoven lines. The second is a mournfully-laden Chanson, ushered in by the viola with cello accompaniment. The harmonies become more dense, tortuous and chromatic, expressed by the players with ardent fervour. The mood is lightened in the final piece, which is spiky and rhythmically buoyant. Pizzicatos and playful gestures are harnessed for effect.

These attractive scores have happily found most sympathetic advocates in the Black Oak Ensemble, who play with supreme musicianship, enthusiasm and commitment. With production standards and excellent documentation flying high, this Cedille release can be recommended with the greatest possible enthusiasm.

Stephen Greenbank




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