The Eblana String Trio Plays British Composers

FINZI: Prelude and Fugue for String Trio. WOOD: Ithaka. BEAMISH: The King’s Alchemist. MOERAN: String Trio in G / Eblana String Trio / Willowhayne Records WHR067

The Eblana String Trio, founded in 2006, consists of violinist Jonathan Martindale, violist Lucy Nolan and cellist Peggy Nolan. On this disc they pay tribute to four British composers of which probably the best known outside England is the late Gerald Finzi. Like so many of his contemporaries, Finzi wrote in a relatively consonant style based on older music. There are some nice touches in his use of counterpoint and a few mild excursions of unusual tonality, but nothing that would ruffle the feathers of the average classical music radio buff. Thus his Prelude and Fugue for string trio is interesting for the way he manipulated the three strings and the solid professionalism of his composing style, and I was glad to hear it.

The trio plays with an excellent combination of suave finesse and rhythmic energy when the music calls for it. Judging from this recording, which is my first hearing of them, they have a very warm sound, Even when they are playing totally separate, opposing lines, they sound as if they are operating as a unit and not as three competing instruments.

This is especially apparent in Ithaka by Hugh Wood, a composer born in 1932 who at this writing is still with us. I must be honest: I was absolutely surprised by the complete modernism of this piece, which is given its first recording here. So is Hugh Wood? Apparently, he has spent much of his life as an academic, which then doesn’t surprise me that I’d not heard of him before, but I surely will be on the lookout for his other works. And please understand, it’s not just the modernism of Ithaka that intrigued me, but the highly intelligent manner in which Wood put the piece together. This is music that does not remain within the confines of its edgy opening statements, but evolves and changes direction in both surprising and intelligent ways. I consider it one of the finest modern works I’ve heard by any composer, British or otherwise. Indeed, within its nine minutes and 40 seconds, Wood gives us three contrasting but connected sections, within each of which he morphs and modifies the music as it develops. This is a great piece.

The next composer we hear is Sally Beamish (b. 1956), whose music has an eerie, almost unearthly sound to it. The piece is her impression of the life of John Damian, a European alchemist of the middle ages who served at the court of King James IV and was known by the title “the French leech.” Beamish states in the liner notes that her music is based in part on the French folk song “L’homme armé,” but this is only a part of her remarkable powers of invention. Like the Wood piece, it changes in tempo and mood but, unlike the Wood, is divided into four separate movements of which the last, “Avis Hominis,” consists of strange, upward-moving, darting figures by the violin. Originally commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia, this, too is its first recording.

The recital ends with a very tonal and rather conventional piece, Ernest Moeran’s String Trio in G. The interest in this work is in its very fine polyphonic writing; the themes themselves are conventionally tonal, though Moran did use some nice modulations throughout. I was particularly taken by the “Adagio,” in which Moeran uses the intervals between the two lower instruments (viola and cello) as moving parts against the melody line of the violin, and in which neither melody nor harmony is ever quite predictable. The liner notes quote from a letter he wrote to his friend Peter Warlock while composing it, in which he said that “It is an excellent discipline in trying to break away from the mush of Delius-like chords.” I’d say that he succeeded. The last movement is also interesting in addition to being rhythmically brisk.

This is an interesting survey of British string trios written between 1931 (Moeran) and 2013 (Beamish), showing complementary and contrasting musical styles within the same basic framework. The recorded sound is also superb, forward and not too overripe with echo.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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