The Concordia Trio Explores American Vistas

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AMERICAN VISTAS / PISTON: 3 Counterpoints. HOVHANESS: Trio, Op. 201. LEWIS: Berceuse. HARBISDON: Trio Sonata. COWELL: 7 Paragraphs. COLSON: String Trio No. 1, “Zazen” / Concordia String Trio / Centaur CRC 3625

The Concordia String Trio, comprised of violinist Marcia Henry Liebenow, violist Leslie Perna and cellist Karen Becker, here tackles a program of 20th and 21st-century American composers. The two outliers in this list are Leonard Mark Lewis and David Colson, who I did not previously know.

Piston’s 3 Counterpoints are not as well known as his orchestral music, but they are typically fine works by this relatively neglected American composer. Lively and energetic, the music teeters on the brink of atonality but never quite arrives there; it is, more often, bitonal, yet one can almost always sense the underlying tonal base. Despite the somewhat over-ambient sound, I was impressed by the trio’s combination of warmth and incisive rhythms. These surprisingly late works, dating from 1973, still retain the stamp of Piston’s style; the middle piece is an “adagio sereno” sandwiched between two fast movements, and has a particularly yearning theme.

The Hovhaness Trio, from 1962, is particularly interesting in that it uses microtones in the manner of Julián Carrillo and Harry Partch. A strange piece, the opening features the violin and cello playing pizzicato figures while the viola slithers around chromatically, then they all sort of get into the spirit before returning to the format of the opening. The second movement, an “Allegro,” is more conventional in harmony, again featuring pizzicato scrambling by the violin and cello and allowing the viola to play the theme statement—but it’s very short, and in the final movement, “Lento,” we return to microtonalism.

Interestingly, Lewis’ Berceuse is much in the same vein; at first, I almost thought it was a fourth movement of the Hovhaness Trio, except that Lewis veers back towards tonality, thus this score opens with chromatic sliding but does not dwell in it. Most of the music is indeed a berceuse in the true sense of the word.

By contrast, John Harbison’s Trio Sonata is terse and to the point; the themes barely have time enough to establish themselves and develop a little before the music is over (the entire four-movement piece lasts only 4:47). Even more surprising, to me, was the first of the 7 Paragraphs of Henry Cowell, which sounded quite Romantic. The remainder of the pieces are in his normal atonal or bitonal style.

I was particularly struck by David Colson’s highly imaginative String Trio No. 1, subtitled “Zazen.” He, too, uses bitonality, but does so in a very dynamic manner, creating tension via the intensity of the string bowing and his subtle use of dynamics on sustained tones. The third movement, which is the busiest in terms of rhythmic movement and harmonic development, bears the odd title “The dolls in the window are doing perfect zazen but their eyes are not open.” In the fourth, “A forest of clouds,” Colson also introduces some rhythmic movement but at a much slower pace. Curiously, the last movement, titled “Stand still, stand still,” is the edgiest and most intense movement, indicating the constant busyness of one’s mind when one is trying to do perfect meditation.

All in all, this is one of the finest albums of out-of-repertoire string music I’ve heard in a long time. The Concordia Trio should be commended for their desire to play music that is different from the usual Romantic blather that one hears over and over and over again. A real gem!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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