MAURICE RAVEL: Trio in a minor; ERNEST CHAUSSON: Trio in g minor, Opus 3 – Trio Solisti – Marie Bachmann – v./ Alexis Pia Gerlach – cello/ Adam Naiman – p. – Bridge 9440, 56:40 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) composed only one trio, and wrote it during a period when many others in France (Debussy, Chaminade, Massenet, Lalo, Franck, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Widor, etc.) were writing them. On this album it is set against an earlier and more sombre trio by an older composer, Ernest Chausson (1855 – 1899).
Ravel was living near his birthplace on the France-Spain border in the summer of 1914, and was distressed about the looming war, planning to join the military in the fall. So he worked with unusual speed to complete several works, this trio among them. The first movement (Modéré) draws on his mother’s Basque heritage with an ethereal dance-like (Zortzico) melody. Marked Pantoum: Assez vif, the second movement takes its name and structure from a form of Malayan poetry fashionable in France at the time, involving interweaving of themes. The third movement Passacaille: Trés large sets a more somber mood. The names come from the Passacaglia, which along with the Chaconne, had Spanish and Italian roots in slow dance, three-beats-to-a-measure, and the French words for “very wide or expansive”. The final movement, Final: Animé, is entertaining and virtuosic. Ravel was asked, on a trip to England about his possibly performing in this piece. Even though he had entered the Paris Conservatoire as a piano scholar, he answered that “he was absolutely incapable of playing the piano part.”
Ernest Chausson’s father, like Ravel’s, had a technical profession, and a love of music. Chausson Senior was a public works contractor and made his fortune in the reconstruction of Paris (1853 – 1870). It meant that his son never had to work for a living. Ernest completed a law degree and then turned to his passion for music. He was gifted enough to win admission to the Paris Conservatoire at age 24. This Piano Trio is an early work (Opus 3), and reflects that he was a student of Massenet and a protégé of Franck. It begins with a brooding theme which is fully developed through recapitulation to final almost violent notes. It is marked Pas trop lent:Animé, and is followed by a Vite second movement, a rousing scherzo in the manner of Brahms. The pace changes again in the Assez lent third movement, with hints of Grieg. And the closing Animé movement has pleasant waltz rhythms, but ends with a dirge-like feeling plus very loud playing. In the manner of César Franck, Chausson develops one theme fully through the whole piece.
Chausson was 27 when his Trio was premiered at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique in April 1882. No critics were present and so there is no record of its reception. However, we know that the piece was not published until 1919, well after the composer’s death. And speaking of his death, Chausson was at one of his country places, out using a new contraption called a bicycle, when he crashed into a wall, fractured his skull and died. His reputation drew a Who’s-Who to his funeral – among them Debussy, Fauré and Dukas, as well as Degas and Rodin.
The Trio Solisti has been called by several critics, “The Successor to the Beaux Arts Trio”. They are based in New York, the “Ensemble-in-Residence” at Adelphi University, and founders of the Telluride MusicFest 13 years ago. Together since 2001, they have a discography including Dvorak Trios on this Bridge label, and the Tempest Fantasy, a Pulitzer Prize winning piece by Paul Moravec, on the Naxos label. This recording took place during December 2013 in the Recital Hall of SUNY Purchase, NY, with all the technical work done by Adam Abeshouse. The sound and playing are magnificent.
Besides the music and the performers, a real discovery for me, however, was the annotator, James M. Keller. I didn’t know of him, but he writes the program notes for the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. And they managed to get him to write the booklet for this album. His speciality is chamber music: he is the author of Oxford University’s Listener’s Guide to Chamber Music. I picked up the book and found wonderful write-ups on 192 essential chamber works by 54 composers. I wondered if the Ravel and Chausson Trios would be there. The Ravel was: the Chausson wasn’t. I wondered if they just lifted Keller’s write-up of the Ravel for this booklet: they didn’t. Keller completely re-worked the description. He is a giant among writers about music, and has won the prestigious ASCAP – Deems Taylor award for feature writing about music in Chamber Music Magazine.
The Oxford Guide to Chamber Music is a marvelous reference for music-lovers. No less than Menachem Pressler, Renée Fleming and the Co-Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center have written testimonials. And in it I learned what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German poet, philosopher and polymath, wrote in 1829 after hearing Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 132, “Of all types of instrumental music, I have always been able to follow these best. You listen to four sensible persons conversing, you profit from their discourse, and you get to know the individual character of the instruments.”
The Trio Solisti has more exciting things on its schedule: this fall a series of three concerts at Carnegie Hall where they’ll play all of Brahms chamber music with piano. Then in 2016, they record all the Brahms Piano Trios. Perhaps after that, they would consider recording their next two or three favorites from the list in the first paragraph – and begin a French series.
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