GERSHWIN: An American in Paris (arr. Schröter). ROTA: Trio for Clarinet, Cello & Piano. DEMENGA: Summer Breeze II. HEGGEDORN: Siena. HICKEY: Tiergarten. SCHNYDER: A Friday Night in August / Trio Eclipse: Lionel Andrey, cl; Sebastian Braun, cel; Benedek Horváth, pno / Prospero PROSP0002
This is the first recording by a fairly new chamber trio from Switzerland on a likewise new label, Prospero Records. Trio Eclipse consists of three prizewinning soloists who decided to team up as a chamber group and made their debut at the Lucerne Festival last year. The purple praise for the group in the liner notes goes over all sorts of nonsense about Holst’s Planets, Cage’s Atlas eclipticalis, and how this plays into the group naming itself after an astronomical phenomenon.
Without casting aspersions on their evidently high musical skills, I believe that they made an artistic misstep by opening their debut disc with a clarinet trio arrangement of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, and that for two reasons. First, despite the obvious popularity of this piece, one of Gershwin’s more successful jazz-classical hybrids, it doesn’t work particularly well as a clarinet trio. The music was orchestrally conceived, and orchestrally played it must be to make its proper impact. And second, with Gershwin being done to death—my local classical music station plays both American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue on a WEEKLY basis—wouldn’t it have been more adventurous of them to play a piece of music by one of the composers who Gershwin ripped off to create his style, William Grant Still, whose music still lies mostly fallow in the backwaters of classical culture? A nice arrangement of a few pieces from Still’s Lenox Avenue Suite would have been perfect for the trio, particularly if it included the “Blues” which Still arranged for Artie Shaw back in 1940. This would have been a far bolder and more original statement for Trio Eclipse, a way of saying, “We’re honoring a great American composer from the past but not one whose music you undoubtedly have burned into your brain as a template for pops concerts.” With that being said, arranger Stefan Schröter did an amazing job, often transferring string figures to the clarinet and closing as many holes in the score as he could.
But things pick up with Nino Rota’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello & Piano. Although primarily recognized as a film composer, like Gershwin himself from 1933 onward, Rota was a well-schooled musician and here turns out a lightweight but very well-structured piece. By this point, I began to feel that Trio Eclipse was born to play rhythmic music moreso than “music of the spheres.” Their accents in this and the Gershwin indicated to me that they also listen to jazz. The second movement, with its unusual harmonic changes, was particularly interesting, and the ultra-lively third movement, with its constantly shifting harmonic center, was very amusing.
Next up is Swiss composer Thomas Demenga’s Summer Breeze II. This is a very modern and atmospheric piece, which opens with an ambiguous harmony, dark piano chords and the clarinet and cello playing very softly. After a pause, the piano plays a repeated series of three chords, followed by the cello again playing on the edge of his strings. This part of the score is repetitive, reminiscent of minimalism, but Demenga then changes harmony while retaining the same rhythm in the development section, whence the clarinet enters playing its own quirky, repeated melody. Again we become mired in minimalism with a change of key at 3:45. Eventually the volume increases, a crushed piano chord brings us to a stop again, and then we hear a faster tempo with atonal clarinet swirls over the piano and cello, the latter now playing pizzicato.
Simon Heggendorn’s Siena is yet another rhythmic piece, this time using an irregular 6/8 or 9/8 tempo with ambiguous but not really atonal chords. It’s more of a showcase for the cello, which gets the principal melody to himself, following which the piano plays a variation while the cello bounces pizzicato like a jazz cello. The clarinet comes and goes, sometimes in brief solos and sometimes as an accompanying instrument, as the rhythm becomes even more complex. The piano then takes over during the slow section, which has a quasi-bluesy feel to it, before the cello starts playing short, bowed notes, the clarinet takes over, and the tempo increases once again. This piece was commissioned by Trio Eclipse and is its first recording.
Sean Hickey’s Tiergarten opens very atmospherically and mysteriously, with short, amorphous figures that never seem to coalesce. For a composer who got his start playing rock guitar, it is an amazingly fine piece of music, related to his beginnings only via a quote from King Crimson’s Three of a Perfect Pair and an even briefer motif by David Bowie (neither of which I know, since I don’t give a damn about most rock music). Yet even so, Hickey manages to classicalize these excerpts and make them fit into the overall structure, even when the tempo increases and the mysteriousness dissolves for a while. The rest of the piece alternates between this mysterious sonic landscape and the rock-infused music, although the beat is played here a bit less stiffly than most rock bands did, and do.
Happily, we end with a real masterpiece, Daniel Schnyder’s A Friday Night in August, and if this once-very-popular “jazzical” composer has faded a bit from sight in recent years, his music is no less brilliant and engaging. This piece, written in 1996, was inspired by his residency in New York City during the early 1990s, when he could hear Caribbean music being “raucously” played and sung by residents having a barbecue on a little rocky hill outside his apartment window. As usual with Schnyder, everything is neatly and tidily written in a strict formal style yet it constantly gives off the vibes of jazz and, in this case, Caribbean music in its rhythms. Although the cello gets a nice little solo here, the piece is largely dominated by the clarinet and piano. Since I didn’t have this piece in my collection, I was more than happy to both hear it and have it. At about the 6:47 mark, Schnyder tosses in a weird little waltz with the cello playing fast figures on the edge of his strings, but it’s not long before we return to our Caribbean festival.
This is clearly a very fine, interesting and mostly entertaining CD, yet the entertainment aspect never quite overshadows the very committed playing of these three musicians. Trip Eclipse has clearly set out to cut their own swath in the classical world, and I sincerely hope to hear more from them in the future.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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