Hot on the heels of a fine, season-ending concert of The Gallery Players of Niagara (cross-reference below) where the repertoire consisted of piano trios by Beethoven (Op. 70, No. 2) and Dvorák (“Dumky”), it seemed the perfect time to delve further into attempts by other composers to breathe life into the violin, cello and piano combination.
Ravel & Chausson (2014)
Mature style and early work
Pairing Maurice Ravel’s pre-WWI Trio in A Minor with Chausson’s very early Trio in G Minor, Op. 3 provides listeners with insights into the fine art of composition of the creators alongside the artistic skills and abilities of the performers (Maria Bachmann, violin; Alexis Pia Gerlach, cello and Adam Neiman, piano).
The opening “Modéré” in Ravel’s only trio from his lightly populated chamber music works immediately set the bar high for all that followed. The delicate, uniform lifts (if just a tad too “hesitato”)—soon balanced by fiery energy—were immediate proof that this is an ensemble of equals. Instinctively and artfully, everyone knew when to take stage or gracefully slip into the background. Bachmann positively soared through the upper register while Neiman was especially adept in supporting, never overpowering his colleagues. Discreet portamenti (so at odds with the Suk Trio, for example, during their heyday—cross-reference below) and seamless, melodic handoffs were benchmarks of Gerlach’s contributions to the art.
The second movement—a kind of rhythmic Danse Macabre—captivated from the first measure and never let up. Near-perfect executions of various string techniques were wonderfully contrasted by the piano: dry or liquid as required and with exquisite “ring.”
The soothing counterpoint of “Passacaille: Très large”—truly the heart of the music—set the mood/feel at once for a journey that was so—literally—moving and relaxing. The conversational, reflective tone amongst the three friends engaged the mind, ear and soul. The magnificent climax—full, not forced—reluctantly gave way to a tolling piano which expertly calmed the atmosphere.
“Final: Animé” was chock-a-block full of textures, hues and emotions—all delivered with unwavering commitment and style. The daunting technical challenges were deceptively tossed off as mere child’s play.
The Chausson trio overflows with a wonderful aura of naïveté, experimentation and “Look! See what I can do?” At times verging on the melodramatic (although the finale’s moments of near-orchestral power and scope could readily fuel a cinematic treatment), the performers gave it their all from stem to stern but avoided weeping or allowing any bits of saccharine to spoil the drama and fun. The composer most certainly would have been as delighted with this recording as with his moment of conception. JWR
Fauré, Saint-Saëns, D’Indy (2014)
Lesser known; well worth hearing
The three works on this disc deserve to be heard more often—especially the Fauré, which is the most musically satisfying. The musicians’ skill sets are also displayed to telling effect.
Camille Saint-Saëns Op. 18 features a rhythmically intriguing “Allegro vivace” (the eighths taking a bit of time to consistently settle down) and a very nimble triplet contribution from pianist Rieko Aizawa. The “Andante’s” dotted rhythms fared better—wrapped in a high pedal in the opening measures—immediately establishing an air of mystery. Violinist Jesse Mills revealed a wonderful bel canto tone when required; cellist Raman Ramakrishnan soared throughout all ranges with surety: notably a deliciously dark lower register.
Playfulness indeed filled the largely arid “Scherzo,” overflowing with frenetic, at times near-frantic fun.
The Finale was well balanced musically and acoustically (the latter in large part due to engineer Silas Brown: how intriguing that the piano seemed noticeably brighter than Trio Solisti’s mix). The composer’s sturdy, if somewhat “academic” development, nonetheless, provided the necessary contrast, contributing to the overall pleasantness of the entire experience.
From the first measure of Gabriel Fauré’s F Major Trio, listeners will be suddenly immersed into a marvellously dreamy world, fuelled by delicately shifting moods and Aizawa’s ability to lead with authority but also maintain flow when it’s her colleagues’ turn to shine. The “Andantino” (producing a fantastic image of all parties walking hand in hand in hand) is the heart of the music. The compelling lines are delicately shared like the heady risk of revealing secrets; the vrai unison etches a third instrument from the two strings present. An excursion by the violin and cello to the realm of oneness lingers long in memory, artfully setting up an understandably reluctant, fond adieu.
“Brevity is the soul of all wit.” That old adage is certainly proven in the closing “Allegro vivo,” replete with Aizawa’s saucy tone of “catch me if you can” while much broader snippets from the strings clamour for attention. The four and half minute movement flies by in a flash and most certainly begs for “encore!”
The program concludes with Vincent d’Indy’s look to the past while exploring the present. The clear highlight is “Courante: Lent et solennel.” Here, Ramakrishnan truly takes stage, commanding attention even as Mills and Aizawa provide firm, sensitive support. The latter also captivates during her extended solo which overflows with welcome varieties of touch and a decidedly gentle aura.
The other movements serve to either prepare the way (“Entrée” with its “Feelings” interval figuring prominently; the ever-engaging, impish “Air”) or celebrate all that has come before (the rollicking and at times dramatic “Gigue en rondeau”). JWR
The Piano Trios of Felix Mendelssohn (2011)
Keeping faith by “working” things out
Mendelssohn’s contributions to the piano trio oeuvre are contained on this disc, separated by an arrangement (Hans Stitt) of Song Without Words, Op. 53, No. 2. While filled with good intentions and a fine realization, the overabundance of colour during these three minutes trumps the original’s ability to create a small oasis of quiet introspection.
In Op. 49, cellist Dmitri Atapine provides a lovely, warm tone that is ideal both for the brooding sections and those offering hope. Violinist Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio generally follows suit, if occasionally pushing her way into the mix, while pianist James Winn is a model of discipline and support as necessary. Razor-sharp precision and ensemble is at times lacking (the frenetic “Scherzo,” for example, teeters on frantic), even as some of the phrasing (notably in the “Andante con molto tranquillo”) loses its inherent forward flow with a few too many instances of “hesitato” in the glorious themes. In the Finale, Winn frequently shines through with a fine, delicate touch that ideally contrasts the movement’s predominant verve and drive.
Op. 66 is a masterpiece of construction and overflows with array of emotions. Curiously, string tone comes across as slightly thinner, the performers, nonetheless, offer the finest music making on the disc. Absolutely exquisite is the “Andante espressivo,” where the overriding passion and drama of the opening “Allegro energico e fuoco”—like the calm after the storm—morphs into a far-reaching, deeply personal discussion amongst three friends.
The ensuing “Scherzo” will leave listeners and players alike on the edge of their seats as a fearless tempo drives everyone toward the limits of their capabilities. The closing pizzicati tidy everything up before the “Finale: Allegro appassionato” lifts off “attacca.”
It is here, like a mini Reformation Symphony to come, that Mendelssohn seamlessly combines his compositional skills and instincts with religious faiths (anchoring the rollicking lines with the chorale, “Vor Deinen Thron (Before Your Throne)”). There is a palpable feeling that any disagreement or struggle can be resolved if worked through honestly by all concerned, especially when other points of view are allowed to be heard. If only that compelling notion could trump “I know better than you” here in the 21st century where one-sided belief brings untold misery daily to those deemed “different.”
Those with a penchant for somewhat less-visited, delightful, thoughtfully executed repertoire will savour all three discs. JWR