Friday, 25 May 2012

Terzetti: Trios for flute, viola and harp

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) Elegiac Trio (1916-17) Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Sonate en trio (1916) Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Sonatine en trio, arranged by Carlos Salzedo (1885-1961) (1905/c.1915) William Mathias (1934-1992) Zodiac Trio (1975) Theodore Dubois (1837-1924) Terzettino (1904) The Debussy Ensemble  Susan Milan (flute) Matthew Jones (viola) Ieuan Jones (harp)
Divine Art dda25099 [63:20]

Most folk would regard the combination of flute, viola and harp as being rather unusual and unlikely to have brought forth many works. However, a brief look on the Internet reveals dozens of pieces for the medium, with many of them having been written in the past thirty years.  The earliest would appear to be the present Sonate by Debussy; however, Bax could be the contender for that honour.
Even the most cursory hearing of the works on this CD reveals a great potential for richness of musical colour and tone in the use of this instrumental grouping.  It is a combination that must be a gift to any composer who wishes to write a piece of evocative music that nods towards impressionism, the mysterious or the exotic.
Arnold Bax balanced impressionism with romanticism in many of his works. Added to this was the influence of the ‘Celtic Twilight’.  In the present Elegiac Trio all three stylistic elements are present. This is a lyrical work that alludes to the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland and what Bax perceived as the loss of his ideal (and maybe imaginary) world.
The work is written in one continuous movement and references Irish melodies, ‘colourful pastoral scenes [and] …rippling waves.’ I think that what impresses me most about this work is the successful balance between the various instrumental timbres. It is possible that Bax was inspired by Debussy’s Sonate for the same combination of instruments which was written some six months previously. However, some scholars feel that Bax would not have had an opportunity to hear this work as it was not heard in London until just six weeks before the Bax premiere. So maybe he invented this particular chamber grouping.
Debussy’s Sonate en Trio was, as stated above, written during the Great War in 1916. It is one of three important sonatas written in the last years of his life: the other two are for cello and violin. In many ways, the present work sounds like an improvisation, where the soloists experiment with various instrumental colourings. They are often used in a pointillistic manner which may remind the listener of the orchestral work La Mer. The Sonate is in three movements.
 I am not quite sure about Ravel’s Sonatine en trio. This is simply a transcription of the well-known Sonatina for piano.  It is attractive enough, but I would much rather hear it in the original version. It was arranged sometime after 1915 by the harpist Carlos Salzedo with, ‘by all accounts,’ the composer’s blessing. Perhaps it would have been better for the Debussy Ensemble to champion a work by a lesser-known composer that was especially written for their instrumental combination.
 After reading the liner notes about the William Mathias’ ‘Zodiac’ I was a little concerned. My eye caught a sentence about ‘cosmic’ effects, such as ‘string sliding using a metal object’ on the viola and ‘soundboard tapping’ on the harp. As my late father would have said, it sounded a little ‘long haired.’ Yet I need not have worried. Mathias’ good sense and musicality saved the day.  The work is conceived as a journey between the star signs of Pisces, Aries and Taurus. The three constellations are separated by ‘travelling’ music.  This is an attractive, musically interesting piece that is often haunting and always interesting. There is another recording of this piece listed in the catalogues on the ‘Harp and Company’ label, however I have not heard this.
 Theodore Dubois is best remembered in the organ loft. I wonder what aspiring organist has not attempted the superb Toccata.  However, there is a deal of instrumental, chamber, vocal and stage works in his catalogue.  The Terzettino, which gives its title to the CD, was composed in 1904: the composer was 67 years old. It is a delicious work that is both romantic and reflective. The only downside is that it is far too short.
 The Debussy Ensemble consists of three well-respected and competent soloists. Susan Milan was a former principal of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who now has a largely solo career performing with three chamber ensembles including the present one.   She is also Professor and Fellow of the Royal College of Music and is a director of the British Isles Music Festival.  Matthew Jones is a teacher, performer on the violin and viola and a composer.  He regularly gives recitals with the pianist Michael Hampton.  Finally Ieuan Jones began playing the harp at the age of six. He continued his studies at the Royal College of Music. He has given concerts in many countries and has made a number of recordings.
 Much of this music is impressionistic and numinous in mood and I felt that this was not reflected in the sound quality of this CD: they are just a little let down by the hard edge in the recording. However, the playing on this CD is excellent and all three soloists respond to each other sympathetically.
Bearing in mind that these works are not well known, the liner notes could have been more comprehensive. For example, there is virtually no description or analysis of the Ravel, the Bax or the Dubois.  Finally, I did feel that the cover was just a little bit ‘naff.’ 
Nevertheless, this is a great CD with a wide-ranging selection of music: it displays an instrumental combination that is relatively rarely heard.
 With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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