Trio Casals Plays Modern Music

NV6237 - cover

MODO QUARTO / STEWART: Three for Three. RICHARDS: Dark Radiance for Solo Cello. CAREY: Piano Trio No. 2. WELLS: Since Then. DEUTSCH: Sunset at Montélimar. BRAKEL: Poem for Cello Solo. SHORE: Day Tripping. KRAMER: Suspension of Disbelief. FUERST: Totentanz / Trio Casals: Sylvia Ahramjian, vln; Ovidiu Marinescu, cel; Anna Kislitsyna, pno / Navona NV6237

A potpourri recital of entirely new works is always fun for me to approach, and I always hope that each and every piece in such a program will interest me and be excellent.

David Nisbet Stewart’s Three for Three is described in the notes as having begun their life as piano preludes, then transcribed for piano, two trumpets and a trombone before being arranged here for piano trio. I was intrigued by the first of these pieces, titled “Jitterbug” and alluding to the swing dancers of the 1930s and ‘40s. Whether the piano, two trumpets and trombone played it in a more swinging fashion or not, I don’t know, but Trio Casals’ version, though very energetic, has absolutely no clue how to swing. The music, however, is interesting, comprised of running figures in the piano against clipped interjections and scalar figures played by the strings. The second piece, “Pastorale,” has bitonal leanings with a nice melodic line led by the cello, into which the violin feeds its own melody while the piano accompanies and occasionally interjects. Several pauses in the music towards the end also catch one’s attention. In a way, I found the final “Scherzo” the most intriguing composition of the three, using bowed eighths and triplet figures by the violin against both the cello and piano. In addition to this rhythmic momentum, Stewart has also created little moments of respite from the forward propulsion and varied the rhythm of the bowed figures to create a nice tension. The piece ends abruptly.

Emma-Ruth Richards, who wrote Dark Radiance, is into all kinds of mythological symbolism: angels, halos and trumpets, along with Greek philosophers who associate light “as a metaphor for Truth and, in the Renaissance era, Fire and Light correlate to vision.” The music itself is slow and dour in the opening, later on adding spiky atonal figures to the mix, but for me the music didn’t really go anywhere or say anything. There is a development section played by the solo cello, however, that I found moderately interesting.

I did, however, like Joanne Carey’s Piano Trio No. 2, a piece in the minor that has a nice forward propulsion and doesn’t pretend to be “about” something. Although she describes the music as “an expression of angst and the struggle to overcome it,” one can appreciate it in pure terms as well, described as “three main themes: the languid theme, which initially set the piece in motion, is based on descending minor thirds and chromatic notes and is usually accompanied by three repeated notes; an angular melodic theme, taken mostly by the cello and the violin; and a fast, energetic motive-theme that is not strictly melodic. Motives from all of these ‘themes’ are transformed, varied, and intertwined throughout the piece.” I also liked its brevity: lasting only six minutes, it says what it has to say, does so concisely, and then leaves.

Even better is Allyson Wells’ Since Then, a truly creative trio which uses contrasting motifs and rhythmic cells to create an interesting musical mosaic. Wells describes the piece as having originally been written to help a chamber quartet cope with the sadness and loss of one of their members, but now she feels that it can express anyone’s sadness and loss. Too much touchy-feely nonsense for me (I’ve had more hardship and loss in my life than these people did, but I don’t sit around to grieve and whine about it), but as I say, I did like the halting progression of the music and the way she manipulates her musical materials.

L Peter Deutsch’s Sunset at Montélimar is a surprisingly Romantic piece, written in a resolutely tonal style and having old-fashioned, broad melodies which he develops. It was very nice but could have been written by Brahms. The words of Christopher Brakel’s Poem are as follows. I leave it to you to try to decipher what it means:

Stone blood –
fossilizes the transparency
wherein innocence prays –
preys.

Lost silence –
slowly shatters beneath the snow
still black with remembrance.

What then, sacred void, can transform
black into meaning, identity into religion?

Hollow water –
fills time with darker thoughts,
then returns to frozen wind.

Night scream –
defines unpronounced unity.
Now, self-dormant ones,
I am not we.

Yeah, you tell ‘em, Chris. As for the music, it makes its way through your brain in broken, minor-key shards of notes played by the solo cello, interspersed with bowed figures. Taken on its own, without the (ahem!) poetic allusion, it’s an interesting piece in its minor angst sort of way.

Clare Shore’s Day Tripping, by contrast, is a wonderfully imaginative and atmospheric piece. She claims that each of its two sections represents a well-remembered day trip that she took, but as in the tradition of the best music, in the end it doesn’t matter because the overall musical experience is so good. “Peace at Dawn” conveys the appropriate atmosphere with simple gestures, well conceived and imaginatively constructed, while “Juniper Run” begins with the pianist knocking on his instrument before violin and cello enter, playing oddly syncopated figures in a scalar fashion. Shore builds on this unusual construction as the piece develops. Towards the end, a sort of Latin-style rhythm comes in for a few bars. This is one of the finest pieces on the entire album.

Keith Kramer’s Suspension of Disbelief is a fairly abstract piece but a fascinating one, using “scalar and harmonic materials derived from Japanese and Hindustani traditions.” Although performed in one continuous piece, there are several different sections to it, each having its own specific feeling and character. I really liked this. Kramer has a fertile musical imagination and knows how to construct a modern piece that actually goes somewhere.

We end our little excursion with Matthew Fuerst’s Totentanz, a somewhat minimalist piece with a nice hook to it. Of course our composer has to whine about climate change in his liner notes, but what do you expect when our education system refuses to teach real climate science? Thankfully, we can ignore this drivel and enjoy the music as music. I really liked the way Fuerst moved his theme around in little cells, shifting the rhythms and rearranging them as the piece develops. The piece develops a nice if quirky swing to the music, which Trio Casals plays exceptionally well. Eventually, the piece accelerates and “blows up,” out of which the solo violin plays a furtive figure, the cello follows, and the piece ends quietly.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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