The Thibaud String Trio Plays Milhaud & Martinů

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MILHAUD: String Trio. Sonatine à trois. MARTINŮ: String Trios Nos. 1 & 2 / Jacques Thibaud String Trio / Audite 97.727

It took me aback a little to discover that the members of a string trio named after one of the most famous French violinists are a German violinist (Burkhard Maiß), a Dutch violist (Hannah Strijbos) and a Romanian cellist (Bogdan Jianu). Their musical style is very much of the modern style, crisp, clean and omitting all traces of lingering and rubato, and they all have gorgeous tones. But of course, the music is by two modern (20th-century) composers who didn’t write in a style that called for the kind of rubato that Thibaud used when he played his beloved Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.

I also must confess that all of this music was new to me, despite the fact that I love and admire both composers. Milhaud’s String Trio, though composed in 1947, is surprisingly light in both mood and musical content. It would almost seem to be a trifle for him, except that Milhaud never published any music of which he was not proud, and by and large it is mostly the central movement, “Serenade,” that most sounds like salon music. The other movements are all somewhat meatier (the fifth and final one is a fugue) if not exactly prime rib, and the Jacques Thibaud Trio plays them with an excellent seriousness of style. They also manage to occasionally interject a smile into their performance, which goes a long way towards ingratiating the listener with the score.

The Sonatine à trois is an even lighter work dedicated to his wife and son, yet it contains some interesting polyphony and is by no means a “throwaway” piece. Once again, the Thibaud Trio manages to balance seriousness and charm in their performance, bringing out the felicitous qualities of the music with wonderful alacrity. The three musicians have all developed a similar sound profile, rich in tone and using a very light vibrato, which makes them perfect chamber-music-mates. This is especially evident in the third and most playful movement, marked “Animé,” where their playing has a particular deftness of touch.

Yet to move from the essentially light-hearted string trios of Milhaud to the deadly serious, dramatic world of Martinů is almost a jolt to the system, despite the light moments within each movement that are also played deftly. Despite his momentary successes with the popular orchestral pieces Half-time and La Bagarre, Martinů was not as lucky as his French contemporary in terms of success, but rather struggled financially, living off the earnings of his wife Charlotte who was a seamstress in a clothing factory. Let that sink in for a minute. Not that much different from today, when the popular composers who write the junkiest “ambient” pieces or minimalist rubbish make the most money, is it? But at least today’s composers, good, bad, and mediocre, can all gain free exposure via the Internet. Martinů had to rely on the old-fashioned media of his day: live concerts, records and radio. And he wasn’t lucky.

But what great pieces these two String Trios are! Written while he was living in Paris during the 1920s, they fairly burst at the seams with both energy and brilliant ideas, literally falling over each other as they tumble out from the score. Yes, there are moments when Czech folk songs peek out, particularly in the second movement of the first trio, but Martinů was always best when he let his imagination run wild and let it take him wherever it might, and he certainly accomplishes that here.

Moreover, the Jacques Thibaud Trio really digs into this music, showing us that they have depth and soul and not just good chops. If anything, the second Trio is even denser and more difficult than the first, starting out with rather harmonically astringent polyphony in the first movement before settling down to a nice lyrical passage which in turn gives way to skittering figures for the violin over the chromatically-moving viola and cello. Despite the seriousness of the music, the Trio finds a way to inject some moments of lightness and humor into the less explosive moments, although in this work the drama is never far from the surface. Martinů was clearly writing for himself and whatever string groups might play it—perhaps Paul Hindemith’s famous Amar Trio?—but alas, it never made it to records in those days. The Thibaud Trio has a few rivals in this work, particularly the Lendvai String Trio, Domus and the Albers Trio, but although all of them are played briskly and with energy, they lack the underlying sense of life-and-death struggle one hears in the Thibaud performance. Granted, had I only heard Lendvai or Domus play it, I’d be impressed by the music and might even think they were good performances (which they are), but the Jacques Thibaud Trio’s performance is the great one.

I was absolutely bowled over by this CD, and Thibaus String Trio is now on my radar as one chamber group to look out for. Dig it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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