The Morgenstern Trio plays Transformations

ACD-71326 - cover

TRANSFORMATIONS / BRIDGE: Phantasie Trio in C min. JALBERT: Piano Trio No. 2. BLOCH: 3 Nocturnes. BARAN: Dōnūşūmier (Transformations) / Morgenstern Trio / Azica ACD-71326

Named after German poet Christian Morgenstern, the trio of pianist Catherine Klipfel, violinist Stefan Hempel and cellist Emanuel Wehse met at Folkwang Conservatory. They’ve been playing together since 2008, but this is only their second CD.

The early (1907) Phantasie Trio by Frank Bridge, though in one continuous movement lasting a little over 17 minutes, is actually divided into five sections as follows:

  1. Allegro moderato ma con fuoco –
  2. Andante con molta espressione –
  3. Allegro scherzoso –
  4. Andante –
  5. Allegro moderato – Con anima

The Morgenstern Trio plays it with great passion but also with outstanding sweep and legato. Surprisingly for Bridge, the principal theme of the first section is tonal and almost Romantic in feeling, but it quickly morphs harmonically as the music becomes more agitated. At about 4:21 we move into the “Andante con molta espressione” section, played (again) in a Romantic style by the piano, with the violin and cello dropping little comments in before a broad cello theme changes things slightly. The “Allegro scherzoso” starts at 8:48, a brief but spirited movement with string pizzicato leading things off against the piano before returning to broad, bowed playing, then a switch to lightly bowed figures in which the chords become whole-tone and a bit edgier. We return to an “Andante” at 10:55 before moving into the final “Allegro moderato” theme, which is based on the opening but now expanded and developed further.

The following Piano Trio No. 2 is an entirely new work, composed for this group by Pierre Jalbert. In two contrasting movements—“Mysterious, nocturnal, desolate” and “Agitated, relentless”—the music begins with both strings playing very high up on the edge of their strings, very softly, while the piano plays little sprinkles of notes. Although a harmonically modern work, the Jalbert piece also features very broad themes which require a sustained style in many passages, although at 2:12 the tempo temporarily picks up and we get a surprisingly agitated section. Jalbert, who I had never heard of before, is clearly a composer who understands that a composition must develop and go somewhere, also that soft, mushy, romantic goop is not really “nocturnal,” just rubbish. The entire movement conveys a feeling not unlike driving down a poorly-lit highway with few road signs in the dead of night. You know you’re going somewhere, but you have doubts that you’re on the right track. Eventually, the music becomes entirely agitated before suddenly dropping down in tempo and volume for the final section. In the second movement, all is edginess, with the piano playing a moving bass line against staccato interjections by the strings. Jalbert sets up a sort of moto perpetuo for a while, but then interrupts it with edgy string tremolos and pizzicato as the tempo and volume suddenly drop for a slow passage reminiscent of the first movement, then picks up the restless energy once again. This is a simply wonderful piece: original, imaginative and very well-structured.

By contrast, the 3 Nocturnes of Ernest Bloch sound somewhat old-fashioned, yet the Morgenstern Trio plays them with such great feeling and temperament that they refuse to let the music sound sentimental. Indeed, they do a great job of emphasizing the somewhat French-style harmonics which include whole tones in its construction. Again, it’s the approach and not the actual score itself that dictates the mood, although the second of these nocturnes, marked “Andante quieto,” is clearly the most Romantic while the third, “Tempestoso,” is the edgiest.

Last up is the nine-part Dōnūşūmier or Transformations by Ilham Baran, a Turkish composer (now 84 years old) best known for electronic compositions. Since I can’t stand electronic music, I was happy to hear that this piece is indeed scored for a conventional piano trio without “enhancements.” After a somewhat tonal opening on the piano, the theme is played broadly by the violin while the cello assumes a rocking motion underneath. We then move into the first of eight variations, which combines Stravinskian rhythm with Middle Eastern harmonies. The second variation is slower and more elegant, almost relaxing except for its unusual harmonic movement. The third continues the vein of the second, but the theme is morphed further and includes pizzicato cello beneath increasingly louder block chords played by the piano. The volume slowly increases towards the end, which then leads us into the more rhythmic, medium-tempo fourth variation. In the brief fourth variation, the rhythm suddenly explodes in an “Allegro” that ends abruptly instead of carrying over to the very lyrical, almost Romantic fifth. By the eighth variation, we return to louder, edgier music, but what impressed me was the continuity that ran throughout the entire composition.

Clearly, this is an exceptional album, played with great heart and commitment by a trio that takes its mission very seriously. The sheer variety of material here, and the way it’s programmed, give one a feeling that they will continue to be very good for a long time to come.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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