An A to Z of the Piano Trio Repertoire: "F” Composers
by David Barker
César Franck (1822-1890, Belgium) got all of his trio writing out of the road early. His four numbered trios are opp. 1 & 2, written in his late teens. There is also a “fifth” trio, entitled Grand, written at age 12.
The Grand Trio has a single recording, part of a set of his complete chamber works. You would certainly win “who wrote this” games with it, as there is absolutely no hint of the mature composer. Let’s just say that it is a curio, intended for the Franck completist.
None of the numbered trios has received much in the way of attention, recording-wise. There is an intriguing one of op. 1/1 by the all-star Russian trio of Richter, Kagan and Gutman, but the only means of obtaining that at the moment seems to be in a 50-disc boxset.
I hadn’t listened to the Franck trios before writing this part of the survey, and was greatly impressed, Op. 1/1 is a serious, passionate work, in three movements unusually arranged slow-fast-fast. Our reviewer was less enamoured by the work, though very impressed by the same version to which I listened, the Bekova Trio on Chandos (review). Unlike our reviewer, I don’t hear a Mendelssohn influence at all, since there is none of the characteristic lightness. Beethoven strikes me as a more obvious model. Op. 1/2 is titled Trio de salon, so one expects and gets a much less dramatic work than the first. It is nevertheless a cut above the standard “salon” piece, and I feel Franck was selling himself short with the title. Op. 1/3 has a sad element that runs throughout, not something one would necessary expect from a teenager. The fourth trio, op. 2, in one movement, is in fact, a recast version of the original final movement of op. 1/3. This was done on the suggestion of Liszt suggested that it was too long for its purpose, and that it would be better as a standalone piece. At around eighteen minutes in its final form, one can see his point. It is, at least in my opinion, the least interesting of the four by some margin.
The Bekova Trio’s performances are on the slow side, and certainly play up the Romantic aspects. They provide the four numbered trios across two individual CDs, along with the famous violin sonata. I sampled two
other sets with all four numbered trios: Trio Novanta on Tudor and Lively/Samuil/Grimm on Cypres. The latter take a similar, slightly lighter approach to the Bekovas, though I’m not sure about the recording, which (on Spotify) sounds quite congested. The Novantas are very different: consistently faster, too much so for me. They are, I should note, the recommended recording of these works on Presto Classical.
Alexander Fesca (1820-1849, Germany) is more or less contemporary with Mendelssohn and Schumann. The latter likened Fesca’s second trio to a butterfly, in that it had “a flighty and mercurial character capable of pleasing us for moments at a time”. I can see his point, though it is a little harsh considering the composer was barely in his twenties at the time. The two trios presented on the CPO recording are certainly enjoyable listening wherever you dip into them
(review), but attention does tend to drift in and out on extended listening. Having said that, I certainly hope that CPO and the Paian Trio, who are excellent, finish the job by recording the other four trios.
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875, France) is one of those female composers of the nineteenth century, whose works remain seriously undervalued. Few of her compositions have more than a single recording. She wrote four trios, all with piano and cello. Two – opp. 33 & 34, from the 1840s – were written specifically for our combination, whereas the others – opp. 44 & 45, 1850s – were scored with clarinet or flute, respectively, but published with alternative parts for violin. The latter has secured a recording with violin, so I will include it here.
Op. 33 has a very strong Beethoven influence in its rhythms and melodic shape. I had written that surely it deserves more than a single recording, and just before I submitted this for publication, what should arrive but a new recording of both opp. 33 & 34 from Centaur. Alas, it is hindered by poor sound and a very unattractive violin tone (review). Fortunately, the older recording by the Linos Ensemble is excellent: they sound totally engaged and committed to the music.
Op. 34 is not far behind in quality, though possibly the first two movements at 13 and 10 minutes are a little over-extended. The Centaur recording gets round this by not observing the first movement repeat, but the sound qualities of this release are so lacking that I find it difficult to commend. The only other recording is from the mid-80s, the first in a long series by the Abegg Trio on the somewhat difficult to access Tacet label: no problems, however, with the performance.
The single recording of the op. 45 work, with the violin part, is more problematic. The performers have chosen to use period instruments, interpreting this as meaning a fortepiano. This is a work from the mid-1850s, when the pianoforte was well-established. Louise Farrenc came from a wealthy family, and taught at the Paris Conservatoire. Would she have only had access to the older instrument? I don’t know, and the various online sites providing access to this recording do not supply the liner notes which might justify the performers’ choice, but it seems unlikely to me. Ironically, it is not the fortepiano which bothers me as much as the unattractive sounds produced by the two string instruments and the incredibly resonant recording, which makes the performers sound like they are playing in a large barrel. I struggled to listen to the piece all the way through, and my judgement of it as being inferior to the two earlier ones may be coloured by my reaction to the sound. Certainly the flute version has as many recordings as any Farrenc piece.
Father and son Eduard Franck (1817-1893, Germany) and
Richard Franck (1858-1938, Germany) are no relation to their more famous Belgium namesake. Their recorded legacy is almost entirely due to the Audite label, which has released more than a dozen CDs featuring their compositions.
Eduard was a private student of Mendelssohn, whose influence can be very clearly heard in the first, unpublished trio (in E). It is not clear when, or indeed in which order, the later four works were composed. What is in no doubt is the quality of the D major trio, op. 53, which stands head and shoulders. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that, at around 22 minutes, it is the briefest of the four mature trios. It is becoming clear as I progress through this survey that a lack of concision is one of the most common faults of the lesser composer. If you were to choose one of the two Audite CDs with Eduard’s trios, then the choice is simple: 97690 gives you the op. 53 trio, plus two others, and the better performers, the Swiss Piano Trio.
Richard wrote two trios in the 1890s which are very much in the Brahms region of the spectrum. The first is the better of the two with a tarantella-like finale. It is almost ten minutes shorter than the second. The performances aren’t ideal – the tone of the violin is very thin and wavery.
For some reason, I had assumed that
Zdenék Fibich (1850-1900, Czech) was of the generation before Dvořák, when in fact he was born nine years later. His F minor trio, written aged 22, has received more attention than one might have expected with five recordings. Only two are readily available – those from Praga and Supraphon – and having listened to both, there is little to choose in terms of performance. It is a charming, unpretentious work that certainly has as good a claim on being in your collection as do the first two Dvořák trios. There is a second trio, in E flat major, from four years later, but it seems not to have been recorded.
I reviewed a disc of chamber music by
Robert Fuchs (1847-1927, Austria) last year, and was underwhelmed by the lack of inspiration. The CD included a piano trio for the unusual combination of piano, violin and viola and the novelty value wasn’t enough to make me warm to it. The two trios with the more usual cello part are definitely better, though undoubtedly helped on the only recording by the well-credentialed Gould Trio. The first trio, from 1879, is dedicated to and inspired by Brahms, though one might throw Schubert into the mix as well. Either of these two greats would have been proud to call the beautiful singing melody from the trio section of the scherzo his own. The second trio, written twenty-five years later, shows the mature composer’s voice, still Brahmsian, but not slavishly as in the first. Not for the first time in this survey, I can only conclude that these works deserve more than a single recording.
Josef Foerster (1859-1951, Czech) wrote three trios, well spread across his career: 1883, 1894 and 1922. The first is believed to be a student piece, dedicated to Grieg. The slow movement features an absolutely gorgeous melody, which the liner notes suggest might be the most beautiful he ever wrote. The final movement betrays the composer’s inexperience, being far too long and with one of the two main themes bordering on music-hall triteness. The second is the best of the three and deserves a wider audience. It was written following the death of the composer’s sister, and was inspired by a Czech poem which deals with the death of the female subject. The trio is unusually structured as fast-fast-slow, reflecting the transition from joy to sadness in the poem. The closing Adagio is very moving. The final trio shows an awareness of the new developments in music at the time, but remains true to Foerster’s Romantic roots. It has the least immediate appeal of the three works.
My initial impression of these works when I bought them a year or so ago was unfavourable – I was thinking Dvořák without the tunes – but returning to them for this survey has led to a re-assessment. Certainly, they aren’t at the level of the final two Dvořák masterpieces, but few works exist at those dizzying heights. The second trio is certainly superior to either Dvořák 1 or 2.
The only releases featuring the complete sets come rather surprisingly from the same label, Supraphon. The first set, by the eponymous ensemble, dates back to the analog era, while the Janáček Trio’s is from 2012. The sound of the newer set is warmer, and the performances more vibrant. Both are still available, though the older one is harder to track down. The only other recording of any of the trios – is also from a Czech ensemble (Kinsky Trio) and label (Praga) and features a more dramatic, slower performance of the second trio, compared to that by the Janáček Trio. With interesting couplings – Fibich, Janáček and Novák – it makes for a tempting purchase, especially if you don’t feel the need to have all the Foerster trios.
Arthur Foote (1853-1937, USA) was a member of the “Boston Six”, a group of composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries working in that city. The senior member of the group, John Knowles Paine, was Foote’s teacher at Harvard. Unlike Paine’s generation, Foote was wholly trained in the United States, but his influences at initially were very much European, especially German. His first trio, from 1882, is of the Brahmsian mould, full of attractive melodies and interesting rhythms. The second, written twenty years later, is a better, more original work. It has a different feel, lighter in atmosphere, with some French influence evident. The booklet notes suggest some Native American influences. I find it very surprising that neither has received more than a single recording, especially when one considers that the trio of his fellow Boston Six member, Amy Beach has garnered at least six recordings. Fortunately, the Arden Trio performances, which date from 1999, originally on Marco Polo and re-issued on Naxos, are very acceptable.
I haven’t heard the 1901 trio by
Gregorz Fitelberg (1879-1953, Poland) as Acte Prealable is not a label that chooses to make its output available for sampling, let alone streaming. Perhaps I need to rectify this as our reviewer found it mature and a revelation.
James Friskin (1886-1967, Britain) contributed a Phantasie trio to the Cobbett prize in 1907. It is dreamy and rhapsodic, dripping in lush melodies, but unlike the contemporaneous Serenade by Adolph Foerster (see below), it does have sufficient contrast to avoid drowning the listener in syrup. It is to be regretted that he didn’t write a full trio. The single performance strikes me as very good, and is probably likely to be re-issued by Naxos sometime soon, as has happened with a number of other British Music Society releases.
The 1907 Serenade of Adolph Foerster (1854-1927, USA) overflows with lush melodies to the point where a little contrast would be welcomed. The listener could be forgiven for worrying about contracting aural diabetes, so sweetly cloying is the work.
Antonio Fragoso (1897-1918, Portugal) died in the Spanish flu epidemic that swept the world as the First World War came to an end. In his twenty one years, he had already managed in excess of one hundred compositions, suggesting a Villa-Lobos or Martinu fecundity had he lived to a ripe old age. Our reviewer describes his trio as “soulful”, which I won’t disagree with, but I feel that this single recording could have been better had the performers chosen to pay more attention to the tempo markings, and less on the soulful aspects. The opening and closing allegros get barely above andante, and the molto vivace Scherzo is not at all vivacious.
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924, France) is the big name in this section, and his late and single trio is far and away the most recorded of the “F” composers, with in excess of forty entries in the discography. The trio was written near the end of his life – only the string quartet was to follow – and is slower to reveal its undoubted qualities than some of his earlier works, for example, the wondrous piano quartets. The first movement, while an allegro, works best when the ma non troppo instruction is adhered to strongly. The slow movement is beautifully limpid, but it is an andantino, and shouldn’t be too slow. The lively final movement needs to be strongly accented in its questing from one rhythm to the next.
As with the Debussy trio, my default recording of this has been that by the Florestan Trio on Hyperion. It remains a beautifully poised, yet passionate performance, which I feel has been equalled by two recent releases, and probably exceeded by one of them.
The Trio Horszowski (Bridge) was given a Recording of the Month award by Michael Cookson (review) and I can only add my plaudits. I think it is faultless across all three movements, and its sound quality definitely betters that of the Florestans. Stephen Barber’s review was not quite as impressed, but still very positive.
A recording which has sneaked under the MWI radar for a full review is from the Enescu Trio (Genuin). I did remark positively on their performance of two of the Enescu trios in the E part of this survey, and they give us a quite beautiful performance of the Fauré. Unfortunately, the disc is compromised by a run time of 45 minutes, which is really quite unacceptable. At least if you buy it as a download from eClassical, their per-minute pricing will mean that you aren’t being overcharged. I wouldn’t put this above the Horszowski or Florestan, especially because of the short shrift, but if you were keen on the Enescu, this is a real bonus.
The Beaux Arts Trio (Philips) are very slow, exceptionally so in the third movement, and should not have been competitive, if one were sufficiently foolhardy to base a judgement on timings alone. However, somehow they manage to translate that slowness into a mesmeric performance, preserving the necessary elements mentioned above. I do have reservations about their tempo in III. I wouldn’t make this a first choice, but it is a fascinating contrast.
I have heard the Kungsbacka Trio live, and they are a very fine ensemble. Theirs is a good, and at times very good, performance. Our reviewer was very positive, but I feel their tempos are a little too fast in places, especially at the start of the opening movement.
Three French trios which might have been potential contenders don’t match the top three for me. I expected more from the Wanderer Trio (Harmonia Mundi) having been very impressed by their piano quartets. However, they are too cool for my liking; Fauré doesn’t need to be drowned in honey, but I wanted a little more emotion. They were much more to Michael Cookson’s liking (review). I had the same response, or lack of it, to the Boulanger Trio (Ars Produktion). Does this mean that it could be a French style? No, Eric Le Sage and colleagues (Alpha) take a very intense approach, but very slow, and while it is often very beautiful, the essential elegance and lightness of touch needed for this composer seems lost.
There are two recordings which were highly praised by our reviewers that I haven’t heard because of availability issues. Trio Grumiaux (Klara) (review ~ review) was released more than a decade ago, and you will struggle to find the recording, while the Neave Trio (review) is much newer, but only available as a download.
There are a few non-starters, with some surprisingly big names among them. The Gil Shaham-led trio (Canary Classics) is not a contender: too slow in the slow movement, too careless with the subtleties of accents and dynamics in the fast. The well-credentialled Chandos line-up including Kathryn Stott, who has recorded all of Fauré‘s piano music for Hyperion, and Christian Poltera is seriously under-characterised. I failed to hear the qualities in the Nimbus recording featuring Raphael Wallfisch that our two reviewers did (review ~ review). Trio Hochelga (Atma Clasique) shows promise in the first movement, but a slow movement of over ten minutes – more than thirty seconds longer than Le Sage et al. – simply doesn’t work. The Nash Ensemble, re-issued as part of a complete chamber edition on Brilliant Classics, is fairly undistinguished. I reviewed the Fournier Trio (Usk) and found it to be well-played but too restrained.
If you don’t have the Fauré, grab the Horszowski Trio – it has the more interesting (i.e. rarer) couplings of d’Indy and Saint-Saëns, compared to the Florestans.
The 1921 trio of Vincenzo Ferroni (1858-1934, Italy) is enjoyable, though not memorable. Rhapsodic rather than dramatic, it tends to run out of ideas before its time, like so many works by little-known composers. I also suspect that a performance by a better trio would help, both in tonal quality and interpretation, but the chances of that happening are probably slim. The Zandonai trio is an equally interesting and attractive coupling.
The 1924 Trio brasileiro of
Oscar Lorenzo Fernández (1897-1948, Brazil) is a disappointment. It possesses little in the way of memorable melodies or interesting rhythms and in its only recording, the violinist produces an unattractive sound.
Gunnar de Frumerie (1908-1987, Sweden) was a concert pianist so it is not surprising that majority of his compositions feature that instrument. The first trio (1932) is amiable, with a lovely slow movement. The second trio (1952) remains tonal, but is very dark hued, and less ingratiating.
The 1978 composition date for the one trio written by
Luboš Fišer (1935-1999, Czech) wasn’t entirely promising. However, the work, which I could only audition on Youtube, has definite appeal, though it is certainly a contrast to the Suk and Smetana works also on the Praga disc. Written in a single movement, it is basically tonal, with dissonant outbursts. A tense and intense atmosphere is maintained until the peaceful close, and dominated by stretches where only one instrument plays with interruptions by all three players with fortissimo shrieks of anguish.
The trio of Armando Fernandes (1906-1983, Portugal) does not sounds as though it was written in 1980. It is charmingly rustic and Romantic, and I might have thought the date was a typographical error, and should have been 1908, except that would have made Fernandes the greatest child prodigy of all. If you wish to purchase the only recording, can I suggest that you should purchase it from iTunes, where it is available for under Ł10. I have seen the physical CD available at absolutely absurd prices, including an Amazon marketplace seller wanting almost Ł500!
Jean Françaix (1912-1997, France) wrote a number of trios, but only one for this combination; the others involved wind instruments. This one comes late in his life (1986) and is typically jaunty, witty and very Gallic. If you like Françaix, you will like this; if you don’t, you won’t. I could only sample each recording, so can’t really pick between them, beyond the couplings give you the option of other works by the composer, or trios by other composers.
Gareth Farr (1968-, New Zealand) is one of his nation’s better known composers, with a number of significant commissions and performances under his belt: his percussion concerto was performed at the Sydney Olympics by Evelyn Glennie, by way of example. Ahi is the Maori word for fire, but this doesn’t really give any indication of the nature of the piece. In four contrasting and brief movements, it is simple without being simplistic, and impressed me greatly. Its two recordings are on CDs with other contemporary New Zealand trios. It was commissioned for the Ogen Trio who perform it on the Atoll recording.
Robert Fokkens (1975-,
South Africa) has written a five movement work, Mammals of
South Africa, which portrays in music - yes you've guessed - five
different African animals, such as meerkats and leopards. Armed with
the knowledge of what each movement was referring to, I could hear the
animal's characteristics, but without that information, I'm not so sure.
Interesting yes, but musically less so, though our
reviewer was more positive.
Cheryl Frances-Hoad (1980-, Britain) is the youngest composer encountered so far in this survey. Her two works for trio – Melancolia and My fleeting angel – are modern, without being modernist. I can see the quality in them, but was not able to summon up much enthusiasm. However, our reviewer clearly could, describing the collection as “refreshingly engaging and unapologetic, with a strong sense of identity and emotional depth”.
Included in discography only
- Morton Feldman (1926-1987, USA)
- Richard Festinger (1948-, USA)
- Ross Finney (1906-1997, USA)
- Michael Finnissy (1946-, Ireland)
- Jacqueline Fontyn (1930-, Belgium)
- Ron Ford (1959-, USA/Netherlands)
- Wolfgang Fortner (1907-1987, Germany)
- Kenneth Frazelle (1955-, USA)
- Geza Frid (1904-1989, Hungary)
- David Froom (1951-, USA)
- Beat Furrer (1954-, Austria)
Arthur Farwell: Owasco Memories, op. 8
William Fenney: Trio op. 1
Alexander Fesca: Trios 1, 3, 4 & 6 (opp. 11, 23, 31 & 54)
Zdenék Fibich: Trio in E flat
Adolph Foerster: Trios in g & D (opp. 29 & 83)
Felix Fourdrain: Appassionato, Poeme romantique
The following recordings were obtained for this survey as downloads from The Classical Shop and eClassical:
Farrenc - eClassical
Fauré (Trio Wanderer) - eClassical
Fauré (Trio Enescu) - eClassical
Fauré (Le Sage) - eClassical
Fesca – eClassical
C Franck (Bekova) - The Classical Shop: Vol. 1 ~ Vol. 2