Sunday, 1 July 2018

The End of Flowers: Piano Trios by Maurice Ravel and Rebecca Clarke

What a touch of genius to programme two of my favourite piano trios on one CD!  How could they have possibly known...
I cannot recall when I first heard Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor. I think it might have been a recording by the Beaux Arts Trio. I have relished it ever since. Ravel began thinking about this Trio in 1908. Work progressed slowly. It was not until the First World War began that he got a move on. He wanted to enlist in the French army so had to work ‘with mad fury’ to complete the Trio by August 1914.
This is a long work, lasting for just under half an hour. The opening ‘modéré’ movement is inflected with Basque folk-music, without quoting an actual tune. This typically relaxed music is beautifully poised on this recording. The difficult second movement scherzo ‘pantoum’, presents a wide array of exciting contrapuntal devices and instrumental effects. This is vivacious music that carries the listener along in breathless anticipation. The heart of the work is the ‘passacaille.’ This set of ten variations demands to be played slowly and with great concentration of sound. The liner notes suggest that ‘in its final moments, the theme disintegrates, perhaps an ominous premonition of the breakdown of peace in Europe.’ The finale is a ‘tour de force.’ The present performance explores fittingly the dichotomy between romantic music and the fears of war that are presented in this movement. The movement builds toward a terrifying climax with ‘crashing chords, shrieking trills and [a] general cacophony’ that surely foreshadows the dogs of war but ultimately ends in triumph.
Ravel never did enlist, due to his physique: he was, though, able to join the army as a lorry driver.

The Anglo-American composer Rebecca Clarke is best known for her Viola Sonata (1919) and the present Piano Trio. Her catalogue includes several chamber-works as well as many songs.
The Piano Trio was composed in 1921. Several commentators have correctly (I believe) identified this as a ‘war work.’  The CD insert points out that Clarke left no programme for her trio, however, there are plenty of musical suggestions in this piece that imply the horrors of the Great War and her revulsion against it. The opening ‘moderato ma appassionato’ is full of angst and despair. The violent repeated note theme acts as a kind of motto through the work. Another important theme is based on a ‘bugle call’ adding emphasis to the war-torn mood of the work. After a passionate development, the movement closes quietly.  The ‘andante molto semplice’ opens with a quiet version of the ‘motto theme.’ Much of this movement is based on a folk-tune-like melody. This is quiet music that could be described as an elegy or even a lullaby. Clarke has moved away from the harsher Bartokian sounds of the opening movement to something more pastoral in its effect.  It closes with a wistful passage for solo violin.
All the stops are pulled out for the final movement. This is powerful dance-like music that uses ‘pizzicato, cross rhythmic play and metre changes’. The excitement is interrupted by a passionate recapitulation of the ‘bugle call’ theme. The dance returns, bringing the trio to a rumbustious conclusion.
I think that this Trio’s undoubted success relies on Rebecca Clarke’s perfect synthesis of several music conceits, including Bartok’s powerful rhythms and nods to Vaughan William’s pastoralism.

I appreciated the playing by the Canadian ensemble the Gryphon Trio in both the Clarke and the Ravel Trios. Their playing matches the mood, whether it is sunshine, lyricism, despair or violence. The liner notes, written by Robert Rical, present a good introduction to both works. They are printed in English and French.

There are several versions of both Ravel’s and Clarke’s Trio available. The MusicWeb Piano Trio Survey lists seven recordings (not including the present one) of the latter. The Arkiv website clocks up some 65 versions of the Ravel: some may be re-packagings. For an ideal coupling, the present CD cannot be ignored. Both composers were clearly affected by the First World War and both produced trios that are well-summed up by the disc’s title ‘The End of Flowers.’ They achieve this mood by writing music that matches despair at the violence of war. with a recognition that a seemingly more idyllic age has past. On the other hand, both works do present some optimism for the future.

Track Listing: 
Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979) Piano Trio (1921)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Piano Trio in A minor (1914)
Gryphon Trio, Annalee Patipatanakoon (violin) Roman Borys (cello), Jamie Parker (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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