“Her Voice”: Piano Trios by Farrenc, Beach, and Clarke—Neave Trio —Chandos

by | Dec 3, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

“Her Voice”:  Piano Trios by Farrenc, Beach, and Clarke—Neave Trio (Anna Williams, violin, Mikhail Veselov, cello, Eri Nakamura, piano)—Chandos 20139—72:04  ****1/2:

This album presents three piano trios (piano, violin, and cello), written between 1843 and 1938 by female composers; Louise Farrenc’s first trio (opus 33), Amy Marcy Cheney Beach’s trio (opus 150), and the trio by Rebecca Clarke. Through one lens, the album represents the growing but still underrepresented talents of women moving from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. In each case, the composers represented on this disc had superlative talents as teachers, performers, and as composers. Prior to this recording, I had not heard of any of the composers and hearing their representative works helped paint an aural image of the changing times represented between the composition of the three works.

The Neave Trio’s recordings thus far have focused on paths less trodden, and this disc is emblematic of the desire to record lesser-known works. The ensemble’s name is a Gaelic name meaning “bright” and “radiant” and the trio has appearances throughout the United States for its 2019-20 season. Playing off of words, this recording for me presents the strings as a darker sound, but for sure, the piano sparkles in bright and radiant ways.

Farrenc’s piece, one of two trios she wrote, is clearly the more old fashioned in style, offering in its first movement polite gestures and themes reminiscent of Beethoven or Mendelssohn. Her writing betrays her role as a pianist; for her, the trio gives the more interesting writing to the piano while the strings add support.  The violin dominates in providing the melody, but the good stuff is in the piano part.

For me, the writing becomes far more interesting in this four-movement work in the third movement, marked Minuetto – Allegro. The repeated theme is treated well with dialog between strings and tossed about in a playful way with the piano. The dark, rustic sound of William’s violin and Veselov’s cello is perfect for the minuet’s B-section in minor. The violin part and piano trade places, and the faster rhythm in the violin forecasts for my ears the minimalist patterns used by the likes of Philip Glass in the late twentieth-century.

The flavor of the finale easily places us within the Parisian salons in which Farrenc was known to visit as a pianist.

The Beach piece, the latest among the three trios, transports us with its opening theme through time (or an opium-induced haze) with a very different style. As far as the writing goes, it too is a very pianistic piece, but the string writing for me is more interesting. Many times the violin and cello will play together as one, against the piano. But comparing the trio to the first by Farrenc is almost a losing proposition, the pieces are so different, wrought with very different harmonic language. It is also less traditional in its formal structure, changing moods frequently across its three movements. The liner notes indicate that the composer used Inuit song material as the basis to her trio.

The Clarke trio, written in three movements, sounds the most modern to my ears, and became my favorite among the three trios. The opening movement is an excellent source to admire the balance the Neave weave between their parts. Clarke’s use of sul ponticello and pizzicato makes for some entertaining listening.

The middle movement asks the players to be more introspective, and together to find a more unified sound which I believe the Neave do quite well. The finale is full of bright surprises and the writing no doubt keeps both performers and listeners on their toes.

The Neave Trio present to us three pieces worth hearing; for me, the Clarke piece is the one I for sure will return to many times. Their playing is sensitive and responds well to the dramatic curves, especially those present in the Beach and Clarke pieces.

As enthusiastic as I am for their playing, I am less satisfied with the recorded sound. In full disclosure, I auditioned this release in MP3 format, provided for review. I couldn’t help but hear, using headphones, spurious noises from time to time, of activity taking place in the recording session (pages turning or seats creaking). That small quibble aside, the violin sounds closest to the microphones and is in pristine focus; the piano sounds furthest away, and its sound is almost more reverb than dry piano. The cello is marooned somewhere in between the violin and piano, at what I’d wager is a “close audience distance.”

This trio and the music would have been better served with better miking, so that the instruments sound as if they are similarly distant from the listener. This is the only reason for not providing this recording full marks, but is not an indictment against it. For listeners interested in this time period or in the piano trio as a form, these are excellent performances of works you no doubt haven’t heard, and should.

—Sebastian Herrera

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