W.H. Squire (cello) in Chamber Music of BRAHMS, DVORAK, TCHAIKOVSKY, HARTY, DUNKLER – Pristine Audio

Cello virtuoso W.H. Squire has potent representation in chamber works from the acoustic and early electric sound era.

W.H. Squire in Chamber Music = BRAHMS: Clarinet Trio in a minor, Op. 114 (acoustic recording); TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Trio in a minor, Op. 50;  DVORAK (arr. Gruenfeld): Songs my mother taught me; HARTY: Scherzo, Op. 8; HURE: Air; DUNKLER: La fileuse – W.H. Squire, cello/ H.P. Draper, clarinet; Hamilton Harty, piano/ Arthur Catterall, violin/ William Murdoch, piano/ George Thomas Pattman, organ – Pristine Audio PACM 101, 77:24 [avail. in various formats from www.prisitneclassical.com] ****:

Audio restoration engineer and producer Mark Obert-Thorn adds to the active legacy of British cellist W.H. Squire (1871-1963), with a series of chamber works the artist consigned to disc, 1924-1928. Squire recorded few large-scale chamber pieces; and beyond the two offered here, only the Beethoven Archduke Trio remains (on Pristine PACM 073), this collaboration also with violin Catterall and pianist Murdoch.

I always confess to my general dislike of acoustic recordings, given their hollow resonance in many instruments. Quite unusual, then, is it to find a Columbia Records production (24 October 1924) of the most rare of the Brahms chamber works, his Clarinet Trio, one of four compositions Brahms conceived after his “retirement,” having been inspired by Richard Muehlfeld, the principal clarinet of the Meiningen Orchestra.   Since Brahms scores much of the clarinet writing for its upper register, Draper’s playing stands out clearly, and the phrasing moves liquidly, given the composer’s love – throughout the piece – of rhythmic divisions that shift in hemiola fashion. Squire’s tone seems resonant enough, although the sweetness has a “chiseled” quality that the later electric process restores to something like its natural grace. 

The opening of the second movement Adagio suffers in tone quality in all three instruments, but Squire and Draper do manage an eloquent colloquy in the minor key. Most of the Brahms work moves by four-note sequences; here, Brahms employs scalar passages that occasionally exploit the low chalumeau register from the clarinet. The Harty piano sounds tinny or muddy, typical of the acoustic keyboard sound.  We too often forget how fine a pianist Hamilton Harty had been before and after his advent as a brilliant conductor.  I find the entire propulsive quite literal in conception, with few of the “romantic” pulls and pushes that distort the musical line.  The last pages of the second movement allow Squire to sing in happy accord with Draper. Brahms writes an old-fashioned Andante grazioso third movement, played rather somberly. The waltz-like figures do achieve a more graceful appeal as the players proceed.  The clarinet part becomes more animate, and Draper’s arpeggio figures move with clear resonance. The last movement, Allegro, indulges in the constant agogic shifting that makes this movement the most virtuosic. We can hear the dropping figures of the e minor Symphony from time to time. The players pick up their intensity, and the effect comes across as a fine effort in the Brahms oeuvre, despite the sonic limits of the period.

The 1881 Tchaikovsky Piano Trio (23 December 1926) in two movements celebrates the composer’s admiration for Nikolai Rubinstein, deceased at age forty-six, whose small compositional output includes five piano trios. Tchaikovsky sets the opening movement Pezzo elegiaco as a long sonata-form based on a four-note “fate “motif. The second movement presents a theme and twelve variations in program form, a “day in the life” of a creative artist. In a series of stylistic character pieces, Tchaikovsky displays his suave elegance in dances and mood pieces that beckon images from Bach, Mozart, and Russian folk scenes. After a fugue – typical of Tchaikovsky’s penchant for German forms – he introduces a huge coda, which in this performance has been severely cut. The performance in the electric process certainly raises our estimate of the Squire cello tone, along with singular, resonant sweetness from Catterall’s violin. The piano part remains for my perspective still muffled in comparison with the stringed instruments, which Tchaikovsky himself felt could never have competed with the keyboard sonority.  What does work effectively, however, lies in the musical continuity of the performance, whose first movement could easily degenerate into sporadic moments of passion and extended moments of rhetorical gestures. The structural continuity Tchaikovsky assures by his tying the coda to the opening theme of the entire Trio, ending in hushed tones a work that represents an extended, melancholy testimonial to a professional and personal bond.  The splices between the variants of the last movement could be smoother, given the full second that separates silence and sound. Variations V and VI, respectively an alla musette and a waltz, permit Murdoch his due as a pianist of admirable finesse. The Fuga: Allegro moderato comes off  incisively well.  The Mazurka variant tells us what Murdoch might accomplish in Chopin, but the transition to the nostalgic Variation XI (Moderato) is not edited cleanly. The Finale has Schumann influences, inducting Nikolai Rubinstein into the Davids-League. The keyboard part of the concluding funeral march certainly nods to Chopin as it does to a bygone era.

The four encore works – with unnamed piano accompaniment – shine a favorable light on Squire’s preferred medium of short, brilliant showpieces. After an affecting Dvorak song transcription, we hear the composer Hamilton Harty in his Scherzo, a buzzing perpetuum mobile (with a serene middle section), a distant cousin of Rimsky-Korsakovs’s bumble-bee.  The rarity is the devotional Air of French organist Jean Hure (1877-1930), a piece Squire had recorded prior with piano accompaniment. The Dunkler work substitutes a flywheel for the bumble-bee effect, but it makes an amusing, virtuosic trifle.

—Gary Lemco

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