NEW ENGLAND TRIOS / PISTON: Piano Trios Nos. 1 & 2. BERNSTEIN: Piano Trio. PERERA: Piano Trio / Joel Pitchon, vln; Marie-Volcy Pelletier, cello; Yu-Mei Wei, pno / Bridge 9530
This latest Bridge release is one of their most interesting, combining Leonard Bernstein’s very early (1937) piano trio with three other works by Walter Piston and Ronald Perera. What makes the disc even more interesting is that these are the first-ever recordings of these Piston and Perera trios.
Piston and William Schuman, once considered core American composers, have sadly been marginalized in recent decades. This is a shame, as the Piano Trio No. 1 clearly proves. This music is vital, modern but still audience-friendly, and has that characteristic “American sound” that seems to have been lost in the past 20 years. The themes are characteristically American, using open fourths and fifths (in moderation, of course) as well as something of a jazzy swagger in the first movement. Our performers, who apparently do not work regularly together as a formal trio, are all superb, playing the music with a good tone, bristling energy and a strong sense of purpose. I was particularly surprised in this respect by the playing of pianist Yu-Mei Wei who, although she now
teaches at Deerfield Academy, came from Taipei. I’ve heard enough American-born-and-bred pianists who can’t get into the proper rhythm for jazz-oriented classical music, and thus was delighted to hear how well Wei does in this respect. The second movement dispenses with the piano entirely for the first 1:51 of the piece, concentrating on a slow but rather intense violin-cello dialogue. Piston created a wonderful atmosphere in this movement, one that describes in music the feeling of a lonely New England winter. In this movement, I was also particularly impressed by cellist Pelletier’s rich, sensuous tone. The last movement is also strongly syncopated, and again our intrepid players really dig into the music.
The Bernstein trio opens with an elegiac theme played by the two strings before the piano enters, almost tentatively, with its piquant minor-key melody. Then the music opens up into a lively (but not jazzy) “Allegro vivace.” Although the 19-year-old Bernstein clearly had a sure grasp of form—he soaked up such things like a sponge—the music is only occasionally surprising and original. He clearly had not yet found his own voice; although the music is lively and engaging, it is only occasionally original and surprising. One of those few moments is the pizzicato opening of the second movement, which then swings into a sort of jazz-inflected march. With hindsight, you can tell where he was heading. but he hadn’t quite arrived there yet. The last movement almost sounds minimalist, getting locked into one chord through most of its length and revolving around a fixed rhythm.
Perera’s trio is lively and also very American in feeling without having any connection to jazz rhythms, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t invigorating. I was also impressed by his sophisticated handling of rhythm, moving quickly and expertly into neighboring tonalities with the mere flick of a pivot-point within his chords. He is even more adept at this than jazz composer Eddie Sauter was, and Sauter was unquestionably brilliant. Moreover, Perera accomplishes this without making it sound affected or as if he were “leaning into” the harmonic shifts for effect’s sake. He keeps the melodic line and its development going, but although he does begin and end his movements in a fixed key he does not stick with it. The second movement has a lovely effect in which the cello strums like a big guitar against the long-lined violin melody while the piano plays occasional chords sprinkles. As the music develops, Perera also changes both the music’s meter and pacing, introducing an ostinato rhythm with some edgy figures above it here and there. The last movement opens with stabbing figures which then move into a moto perpetuo.
The second Piston trio is surprisingly more mature-sounding. Although there is some rhythmic impetus to the music, it is not nearly as syncopated and both the themes and their development are much more sophisticated. It almost (but not quite) sounds like the work of a different composer, yet it is a very good piece. I think that the one thing that marks its maturity is the use of thicker chords and a melodic line that follows the harmony rather than leading it. Also, as result of this method, the development is richer and more complex than previously. This is, I think, particularly evident in the slow second movement, which is stately almost to the point of being a sort of modern dirge. This movement ends on an unresolved chord before leading into an equally serious-sounding third movement which opens with bitonal chime chords before moving into a very harmonically dense theme and back again. Then, suddenly, the tempo doubles and Piston creates a lively 6/8 rhythm around which his minor-leading bitonal harmonies attempt to dance. It’s a very strange creation, at once fascinating and “ugly-beautiful.”
A very interesting CD, then, and considering the world premiere recordings, a necessary one for fans of 20th-century American music.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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