French Trios by the Black Oak Ensemble


TOMASI: Trio à cordes en forme de divertissement. CRAS: String Trio. GOUÉ: String Trio. FRANÇAIX: Trio. R. CASADESUS: String Trio. SAMAZEUILH: Suite en trio. PIERNÉ: Trois pieces en trio / Black Oak Ensemble: Desirée Ruhstrat, vln; Aurélien Fort Pederzoli, vla; David Cunliffe, cel / Çedille CDR 90000 212

If you just looked at the front cover of this 2-CD set, you might think you were in for some standard fare, but if you were to flip over to the back cover you might be quite surprised. Except for Jean Françaix, ,whose music most people know, and Robert Casedesus, who millions know as a pianist but not as a composer, you’ll find quite a few names that will puzzle you. Henri Tomasi? Jean Cras? Émile Goué? Gustave Samazeuilh? Gabriel Pierné? Well, maybe some people have heard of Pierné, although he’s scarcely considered a major composer. These are the first commercial recordings of the Tomasi, Casadesus and Samazeuilh pieces.

Most of these were composers of the second third of the 20th century. Although Pierné was the oldest, having been born in 1863, his Trois pieces date from the last year of his life, 1937. But first up is Tomasi’s string trio, a very satisfying work written in the minor, alternating some Debussy-isms with a Stravinskian touches, particularly the quirky second movement. According to the notes, Tomasi’s reputation as a conductor far surpassed any attention he received as a composer, yet he wrote more than 120 opus numbers encompassing all genres of classical music (operas, ballets, symphonies and concertos in addition to chamber works). Wikipedia sums it up succinctly, stating that “Diatonic and chromatic melodic lines predominate, supported by tertian and polychromatic harmonies,” but this is a very dry way of describing music that struck my ears as vital and communicative. The third movement, for instance, includes some truly fascinating polyrhythmic figures that drive the music forward through its bitonal theme and variants, and the Finale is even more interesting, including quite a bit of non-jazz syncopation.

Of course, as a modern chamber ensemble, the musicians of Black Oak play this music in the crisp, clean, edgy and energized style that most such groups use nowadays, thus I really can’t say if this music perhaps called for more nuance than they give it, but it’s clearly an exciting reading. The trio by Jean Cras, who died in 1932, is a little more old-style but not ultra-Romantic, at least not the way it’s played here. The music uses bitonality but is not as much on the edge as the Tomasi piece, yet it is still an interesting, well-written work. I was far less happy with the way the Black Oak Ensemble played the second movement, with straight tone. I wish some of these groups would do independent research, as I did, and learn the truth. Not only was straight tone not used universally in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was only used by two chamber groups, the Rosé and Capet Quartets, in the era during which some of these pieces were written (the 1920s). Yes, the music is interesting, particularly the bitonal middle section with its cello drones, but the straight tone make it sound abrasive.

The Goué Trio is bouncy and sprightly, using bitonal harmonies, although to my ears it is not as original as the works which preceded it. Nonetheless, it contains some novel ideas as well as shifting meters and tempi in its first movement, and the last movement is an ingenious recasting of tarantella rhythms.

The Françaix trio is in his usual modern-but-entertaining style, including funny “drunk”-sounding passages in the first and last movements, although it is not one of his works most frequently recorded, and the Black Oak Ensemble again plays this, as all the other works, in a peppy manner.

Unlike most of the other composers presented here, and also unlike Artur Schnabel, Robert Casedesus’ compositions are relatively few; he sometimes wrote his music while on train trips between gigs. This one has some fun with overlapping and interlocking rhythmic patterns, which the notes suggest might resemble some of his train travel. The notes also indicate that the trio plays with muted strings in the second movement, but you’d never know this just from listening, as their ultra-bright sound doesn’t come across as muted; still, the music is interesting and a little eerie-sounding—at least, until a full stop introduces a surprisingly sprightly new theme in a fast 6/8. Once again, we have here a formerly unheard gem.

Gustave Samazeuilh, I have learned, was better known as a music critic than as a composer. This trio is the most old-fashioned-sounding, by far, in this entire collection, a real late-Romantic piece played in a post-modern manner by the ensemble. It works, but to my ears the music itself is very conventional and not particularly interesting, just well-crafted. But at least it’s not too sappy and there are some moments that hold your interest except for the third-movement “Sarabande” which repeated the same material too often to please me, and in a lachrymose, drone-like fashion that I didn’t care for. I did, however, like the fourth-movement “Divertissement” very much; this used some extended chords in its harmonic base as well as a lively use of 3/4 rhythm, as well as the interesting harmonic touches in the last-movement “Forlane.”

We end our survey with Pierné’s 3 Pieces for Trio, once again nice music but scarcely advanced-sounding for 1937.  Even so, this is clearly an important release for its inclusion of so much good but rarely-heard and some formerly unrecorded music. Definitely one of the best classical releases of the year.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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