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An A to Z of the Piano Trio Repertoire: “A” Composers
A Survey by David Barker

 

The trio of Alexander Alyabiev (1787-1851, Russia) is a fascinating place to start this survey because home-grown Russian music from the early nineteenth century is so rare. The manuscript is undated, but thought to be from the 1820s. The work is relatively straightforward and technically undemanding, but clearly of its time in its employment of the cello. It strikes me as more satisfying than some of its more showy contemporaries – I’m thinking of the Hummel trios by way of example. The Chandos recording doesn’t make a great case for the work, lacking any sense of energy, particularly in the last movement, where its Russian origins are most evident.

A new release on Cavi Music includes both his works for trio, very well played by the Beethoven Trio Bonn (review). I hadn’t heard the E flat Trio in one movement before: it is an early work, and while pleasant, is clearly part of Alyabyev’s learning curve. This new performance of the A minor Grand Trio is a substantial improvement on the Borodin Trio.

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888, France) is most remembered for his ferociously difficult works for solo piano. He wrote only a few chamber works, all with piano. His trio from 1841 is a relatively restrained work, with rather unmemorable melodies. By reining in his natural tendencies for the piano, he seemed to lose something. The slow movement is unusual in that the strings and the piano play separately for the majority of the movement. I have only heard the Marco Polo recording (re-released on Naxos) – the sound quality, especially that of the piano, isn’t marvellous. Ronald Smith was, for many years, the main proponent of Alkan’s music, and as he is the pianist on the APR recording, it could be that it is a better proposition.

I only became aware of Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929, Sweden) when a recording of her piano music was reviewed here recently (and unfavourably). She was a trailblazer in Swedish musical circles, the first woman to hold a church organist position - Gothenberg Cathedral – a post she held for 62 years! Her output of more than one hundred compositions includes two piano trios, which take Mendelssohn as a starting point. I can see where my colleague who reviewed the piano CD is coming from, as the trios are pleasant but no more than that. The first trio (in c minor – they are not numbered on the CD and presented in reverse order) was written, aged 19, at the completion of her studies with Ludvig Norman, a prominent Swedish composer of the time. The second is from her maturity (1884) and was praised by Niels Gade and Norman when it was submitted to the Swedish Art Society, who subsequently published it. The booklet describes the second of having “a whiff of the young Brahms” which I certainly don’t hear. What I do hear in the opening of the slow movement and throughout the rondo finale is salon music, and that leads me to prefer the first. Interesting to the collector, no more.

Anton Arensky (1861-1906, Russia) was generally considered by his peers and teachers, especially Rimsky-Korsakov, to have wasted his talents and that he would be “soon forgotten”. I find his orchestral music generally uninspired, but the same cannot be said of his chamber music, especially the two piano trios. Of the “A” works, his first trio (1894) is by far the more popular, with more than thirty recordings currently available. It may be overstating matters to say that it is a masterpiece, but I would certainly have it my list of the “top 10” piano trios. It was dedicated to the memory of the great nineteenth-century cellist Karl Davidoff, and his instrument is given centre stage. The whole work absolutely overflows with beautiful melodies and has an infectious scherzo surrounding a trio melody that Elgar would have been proud of. The second trio (1905) has not been anywhere near as popular, with fewer than ten recordings. It is less immediate in its appeal, being more serious and less bountiful in its melody. It does feature a final movement of theme and variations, a mode of expression that always brought out the best in Arensky – try his Suite No. 3 for two pianos.

The recording of both trios which has served me well for many years is by the Beaux Arts Trio (Philips). With the demise of that label, this is no longer widely available, though it is still shown for sale on Amazon. If you want both trios, grab it if you see it, since the five or so alternatives containing both trios are nowhere near as good. The only way of getting the second trio is on a disc coupled with the first.

The newest of these is from the Leonore Piano Trio on Hyperion. The performances, especially that of the first, lack character and rather drag in places. The opposite accusation could be made against the Rachmaninov Trio Moscow (see reviews by Brian Wilson and Gavin Dixon) who charge through, taking five minutes less than the Leonores in both works, and in doing so, ignore the accents and dynamics specified in the score. Brian was reasonably impressed, Gavin less so and I wasn’t at all. Chandos offers a bargain-price disc with the Borodin Trio, and their rendition of the first trio is very good. However, the disc is compromised by an excruciatingly slow second trio, six minutes more than even the Leonore! There are two other recordings with both trios, one from the Dussek Trio on Meridian which I haven’t heard, and one from the American label Fleur de Son which I wish I hadn’t, so poor is the performance.

If you only want the first trio, then the field opens up greatly. One of the most recent releases, by the Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi) has been greatly praised – read Simon Thompson’s review for a fine description of the work itself. Having just purchased it, I can vouch for just how good it is. In fact, I will say that it is the best that I have heard, and I have auditioned at least a dozen during the course of preparing this section of the survey. As mentioned above, the Borodin Trio on Chandos are very good in the First, and this can be obtained without the dreadful Second in the original release. I was very impressed by the Escher Trio on Challenge Classics, though my enthusiasm was not shared by Ian Lace in his review. I would agree with Ian that they do not reach the level of feeling needed in the heartfelt slow movement, but the dynamism and energy in the other movements are exceptional. I did enjoy the light touch of the Cho Piano Trio, though buying this would mean the extra cost of a double album with some of the standards of the repertoire.  Naxos has released a significant recording of three of Arenksy's major chamber works, including the first trio. In his review, Michael Cookson praises the performances highly, while Brian Reinhart made it a Recording of the Year.

The others didn’t come up to scratch. I agree with Michael Cookson that the version by Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch is let down by the intonation of the violinist, but the interpretation is bland anyway, a description that equally applies to Trio Nota Bene (see review), Trio Yuval and Cardenes, Golabek & Solow. A number of reviews referred favourably to the Nash Ensemble’s recording, but it is not a version that made any great impression on me. The most interesting couplings were those for Trio Voce, but unfortunately the performances didn’t match. Disappointingly, the Arthur Grumiaux Trio is only named after the great Belgian violinist. All I can say is that the violinist in the trio is no Grumiaux. I’ve already warned you about the Fleur de Son recording; here’s another one to avoid: the Rembrandt Trio – the first movement repeat is omitted, and the rest sounds like they have a bus to catch.

Marco Anzoletti (1867-1929, Italy) is sufficiently obscure not to have an English Wikipedia page. Neither Presto or Arkivmusic list recordings of his music. Little known he may be, but that’s not due to any lack of productivity. A catalogue of his works reports 31 individual pieces for the combination considered in this survey, putting him second only to Haydn in terms of trio output to the best of my knowledge. The trio presented here has some really fine moments – the slow movement is quite gorgeous – but at 45 minutes, it certainly overstretches its resources. It does, however, lead one to wish that more of his output was available.

Volkmar Andreae (1879-1962, Switzerland) was a mainstay of the Swiss musical world in the first half of the twentieth century, both as composer and conductor. His musical style is Brahms, lightened by French impressionism. In contrast to those of Arensky, Andreae’s two trios, from 1901 and 1908, follow the more usual path of quality, in that the second far outshines the first. Two piano trios – the British Locrian Ensemble and the Swiss Absolut Trio – have each recorded both trios. The Locrians have the advantage of having the two on the one disc, whereas the Absolut versions are spread across two discs, and indeed, two labels.

It might seem that the choice then is simple, but the stunning quality of the performance of the second trio by the Absolut complicates matters. My suggestion would be to get this recording (Musiques Suisses) of the far superior second trio with interesting, and slightly more challenging couplings, and then decide whether you need the first trio. If so, go with the Locrian, unless you have a greater tolerance for hard-edged modernism than me, for the two main couplings for the Absolut Trio’s First are just that – one includes electronics.

Currently, the works of English composer Ernest Austin (1874-1947, England) are represented in the catalogue by a single piano trio. Intriguingly, it is titled No. 4, and his brief Wikipedia entry indicates that he wrote five. I have no further information, as my purchase of this recording was a download, which “generously” came with no booklet. Musically, it is a fine work, squarely in the English pastoral school.

Even if you didn’t know the title of Piezas originales en estilo español or its composer Enrique Arbós (1863-1939, Spain), it would require little musical knowledge to recognise its origins. The Bolero and Habanera are exactly what you would imagine them to be, enjoyable but fairly trite. The third piece, Seguidilas gitanas, is altogether a higher level of inspiration. I have the Devich Trio’s (Challenge) and with its three Spanish discmates, it makes for a very enjoyable release. Brian Reinhart has described it as “a fine bit of musical tourism … extremely well-executed” (review). If you fancy more Arbós, then there is a Verso recording of his chamber music, including Piezas, which Jonathan Woolf enjoyed, but described as “uneven” and “needing stronger performances” (review).

The recorded legacy of Richard Arnell (1917-2009, England) is almost exclusively due to the Dutton label. The symphonies are very good, but I’m less enthused by his piano trio, from 1946. The first two movements don’t really seem to go anywhere or have much to say on the journey. The best is the final movement, which has a long, slow and yearning introduction and finishes passionately.

Franco Alfano (1875-1954, Italy) is best known for his completion of Puccini’s Turandot. This trio from 1933 is confusingly named 'Concerto', but no orchestra is involved; the title may be a reflection of the virtuosity of the three parts. The work opens in a serenely beautiful manner, bringing to mind Ravel. An edgy passage midway precedes an impassioned elegy. In keeping with the unusual title is the unconventional structure: slow – faster – fast. The middle movement has Spanish folk influences, perhaps reflecting the nationality of Alfano’s mother. The booklet notes, written by cellist Magill, state that the presto finale is “clearly a celebration of ancient Rome”. I’m not sure what leads him to this conclusion, nor do I hear his suggested hints of Bartók and Prokofiev either. It doesn’t have the hard edges implied by those composers – my sense is of a French sound-world. It is music like this that makes trawling through the obscure repertoire worthwhile: it is hard to understand why such a fine work took so long to get a recording.

Raffaele d’Alessandro (1911-1959, Switzerland) was unknown to me when I began this survey. He was yet another who studied with Nadia Boulanger. His style is dense late Romantic, tempered by some early modernism. He wrote two works for piano trio, each of which has been recorded. The Six Miniatures (1936) show both sides of his style and were given their first performance in 2013 by the trio who recorded them. You can see a professional quality video of them on Youtube. The single movement trio from four years later has some lovely lyrical moments, and some less than lovely dissonant ones. I would try the Miniatures, if for no other reason than the quality of the performances.

I haven’t heard the 1939 trio of Hendrik Andriessen (1892-1981, Holland), father of the better known Louis, but listening to another piece of his chamber music – a viola sonatine – suggests a restrained Romanticism, and potentially a very interesting work. I intend to track down its only recording.

Only brief excerpts of the trio (1955) by Lev Abeliovich (1912-1985, Lithuania) were available. The style is what one might expect from a student of Myaskovsky, tinged with the influence of Shostakovich.

Few composers showed such a range of moods in their works than Malcolm Arnold (1921-2005, England). I’m thinking of the joy and humour expressed in his national dances and the Grand, Grand Concerto for vacuum cleaner (and other items) and the bleakness in some of the later symphonies. His single piano trio, much under-appreciated, is from 1956, and is serious without being bleak. It has some quite tender moments interspersed with more acerbic elements, which bring Shostakovich to mind. There are two recordings readily available: the English Piano Trio on Naxos and the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion Helios. I have the former, and the latter has been reviewed here very favourably.

The music of Iosif Andriosov (1933-2000, Russia) remains available through the efforts of his daughter. A trio from 1957 was issued through her publishing company, and seems to be available as a download only and streaming on Spotify. It is perfectly approachable, though not especially inspired.

The name of Claude Arrieu (1903-1990, France) was new to me, and the sole recording of his trio (1958) is very hard to track down, so another excerpt-only listen here. Impressions are quite favourable: very French on the Poulenc/Francaix end of the spectrum.

Samuel Adler (b. 1928, USA) wrote two trios, in 1964 and 1978.  They are not harshly experimental as might be suggested by their dates, but are sparse and acerbic in the manner of Walter Piston. They did not appeal to me.

It is to be regretted that Atma have only chosen to include two of the movements from the trio of Solhi Al-Wadi (1934-2007, Iraq/Syria), written in 1975, in memory of Dmitri Shostakovich.  The second movement is very much in the mould of the great Russian - the eighth quartet is mentioned in the notes - and the intense fourth is impressive, dominated by a motif likened to a Syrian chant. 

The trio of Lera Auerbach (b. 1973, Russia) from 1996 begins with a very brief Prelude which fortunately finished before I had a chance to stop it because it didn’t appeal at all with its angularities. I say fortunately because the much longer slow movement is quite beautiful. The presto finale begins at a ripping pace before lapsing into a brittle reverie. The beauty of the middle movement isn’t enough to make me like the work, but I can appreciate the quality of the writing. The Cedille recording features a number of prominent contemporary female composers, and was very warmly received here.

Her second trio titled Triptych, whilst retaining the brittleness and angularity, is much more consistently appealing.  There are distinct echoes of Shostakovich, especially in the third (of five) movements.

Traumlieder by Hans Abrahamsen (b. 1952, Denmark) is a series of six short movements, growing progressively darker and wilder - as dreams do - before finishing tenderly. It is quite an approachable work in a modern Romantic-ish style.

Alessandro Appignani (1976-, Italy) cites his major influence as Schnittke, but his very brief work trio La Coscienza d'Orfeo doesn't reflect that.  It is simple, almost minimalist and very tuneful.  What a shame there isn't more [review].

Included in discography only
- Dieter Acker
- Miguel del Águila
- Georg von Albrecht
- Kit Armstrong
- Finn Arnestad
- Nicholas Ascioti
- Daniel Asia
- Penelope Axtens

Wishlist
Algernon Ashton: Trios 1-3
Ernest Austin: Trios 1-3 & 5