The Lincoln Trio Plays Bacon & Sowerby


BACON: Piano Trio No. 2. SOWERBY: Trio for Violin, Cello & Piano / Lincoln Trio / Çedille CDR203

The Lincoln Trio, consisting of violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, cellist David Cunliffe and pianist Marta Aznavoorian, presents here two works by relatively obscure Chicago-born composers of the 20th century, Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) and Leo Sowerby (1895-1968).

The Bacon trio opens with a slow movement in a late-Romantic style, but is clearly influenced by some of the music that was modern in his time, i.e. Nielsen and Enescu, in that the harmony is quite fluid, often leaning into unusual chord positions. It is also a very atmospheric piece with a touch of melancholy about it. Eventually, the piano begins playing a running melody of it own beneath the strings which complements the dolorous mood of the strings. The slightly faster second part of this movement is marked “In Deliberate March Time,” and this is where things become more complex and interesting, almost moving into Bartók territory.

The second movement, “In an easy walk,” continues the sad feeling of the first albeit in a major key—or sort of, since once again the harmony is fluid. At the 3:30 mark, however, the music suddenly picks up in tempo, volume and intensity, moving into bitonal harmonies as it moves to the finish line. Indeed, my impression of this trio was that of very sad music as a rule, the faster passages therein only serving to heighten tension without relieving it—the one exception being the quirky but lively fourth movement, played with a bit of a jazz kick to the rhythm. The sixth and final movement is a sort of rough, minor mode-leaning, gritty statement with fast passages in the piano part and rapid tremolos in the strings. This is the first recording of this work.

The Sowerby trio, also opening with a slow movement in the minor, does not change the mood much although he had his own way of dealing with the musical progression: slow and measured, as if one were slowly walking to the gallows or the electric chair. I’m guessing that chamber music written by Chicago-based composers of this period was a fairly grim prospect. At the 3:15 mark, the music suddenly becomes louder and more intense; after a brief pause, we move into a very rapid second section which develops his theme in unusual ways; then, at about 7:28, the tempo relaxes again and the dolorous mood returns. Yet at 9:21, we suddenly switch to a jauntier rhythm in bitonal harmony. This movement is pretty schizophrenic in mood!

The second movement is also relatively quiet and solemn, but here Sowerby used sustained string chords over long stretches of time while the pianist plays the melodic line before the cello enters, solo, to develop it a bit. The last movement, “Fast, with a broad sweep,” sets up a brisk 6/8 motor rhythm in which the pianist alternates a strange three-note downward figure with fast-paced figures in the right hand, but again due to the bitonal harmony the music is not happy, although it does break a bit away from the melancholy of the first two movements.

An interesting CD, then, but be prepared. If you’re not in a good space before listening to this CD, it may exacerbate your feelings of sadness, loss or depression. This is simply not cheerful music no matter how you slice it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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