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New England Trios
Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano No.1 (1935) [16:38]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1937) [16:28]
Ronald PERERA (b.1941)
Piano Trio (2002) [17:20]
Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano No.2 (1966) [16:04]
Joel Pitchon (violin), Marie-Volcy Pelletier (cello), Yu-Mei Wei (piano)
rec. 2019, Sweeney Concert Hall, Sage Hall, Smith College, Northampton, USA
BRIDGE 9530 [66:38]

New England Trios puzzles me. I’m not sure why – other than to produce a ‘novelty’ that might intrigue a potential listener (in this case, myself) – violinist Joel Pitchon, cellist Marie-Volcy Pelletier and pianist Yu-Mei Wei felt compelled to learn and record two pianos trios by Piston, pair them with some Bernstein juvenilia and then complete the collection with a trio commissioned in 2002 from Ronald Perera. It’s not that these four piano trios are entirely lacking in interest but Beethoven’s Archduke or Dvořák’s Dumky they are not.

The musicians, who apparently do not work together as a regular trio, profess to have sought works that spoke with an American voice, and more narrowly a New England one. The three composers are purportedly ‘connected’ by their ‘New England experience and study at Harvard University’. There is slight sense of clutching at straws here, and if they wanted to highlight American achievement in this genre then Ives and Copland might have been a more appealing and worthwhile starting point. The claim that, excepting the teenage Bernstein’s composition, the disc comprises world premiere recordings is also suspect. The Western Arts Trio – resident at the University of Wyoming and comprising Brian Hanly (violin), David Tomatz (cello) and Werner Rose (piano) – released an even more eclectic combination of Piston’s first piano trio alongside works by Ernest Bloch, Joseph Schwantner and James Hopkins on the Laurel Records label in 1976 (though, admittedly, this vinyl recording may no longer be available).

Piston’s First Piano Trio was composed in 1935, the same year as the Second String Quartet, while he was on a Guggenheim Fellowship. It’s in this work that I most detect a ‘New England’ spirit, in the piano’s motoring scamper of the opening Allegro, for example, around which the strings sing folky fourth-based melodic fragments. The string tone is bright and clear, but sometimes a little glassy; a bit more soulfulness would be welcome in the second subject. The movement is crisp but feels a bit ‘academic’: the syncopations call for greater litheness and spring. Pelletier’s unaccompanied solo at the opening of the Adagio is touching and pensive, and subsequently Wei’s chords provide a gentle stroking accompaniment, but Pitchon’s counterpoint is disappointingly impassive. This is a lovely movement, but it feels to me as if there are deeper depths to be plumbed. The Allegro con brio triggered one of those “I ‘know’ this piece” moments: three minutes later the lightbulb lit – I could ‘hear’ the skipping Scotch-snaps and insistent melodic snatches of Alan Ridout’s single-movement Fifth String Quartet (1993), and Piston’s scherzo scamper is similarly cheery and satisfying. The dense counterpoint of the Allegro moderato is crispy traced by the three musicians, but though the movement is brief, the lack of dynamic or rhythmic nuance make it rather relentless.

The Second Piano Trio, dating from 1966, is a cooler, sparser work, both harmony and rhythm more unstable and troubled, ever searching. I’m not sure that Piston’s leggiero e capriccioso instruction is observed in the first movement, but the performers seem to have a strong appreciation for the movement’s structure, and here the wiriness of the string sound is to the music’s advantage. What is missing, despite the sure ensemble, is any real sense of ‘dialogue’ between the voices. Although Piston interjects moments of musical brightness, it feels somewhat ‘flat’. The finale Vigoroso is delivered with a rather heavy, listless stamp; even the quieter staccato scurrying lacks incisive accents, of the kind that lift and dance. As in the First Piano Trio, the Adagio presents profound reflections and there is some lyrical melodising here, but while the performance is technically assured the players seem strangely unresponsive to the music’s mysteries: the dynamics are deadpan and the voices do not sing ‘around’ each other. Despite this, Piston’s winding intensities, and the trailing off of the cello descent in the closing bars, did make an impression on me.

The 19-year-old Bernstein was studying with Piston in 1937 when he composed his Piano Trio. Evidently, and forgivably, the young composer was still in search of his own musical voice. The first movement beings with the yearning mournfulness of elegiac post-Romanticism – again it is Pelletier who seems to find the grain of the music – but then doesn’t really seems to know where it’s heading. It’s a stylistic smorgasbord offering morsels of everything from folky spriteliness to Shostakovich-like intensity. The players worthily chomp through the assorted flavours, finding some radiance and then softness in the chordal climax towards the close, but the violin’s farewell needs a sweeter taste to complement the consoling warmth of the cello’s rounded pizzicatos. Hints of what was to come make the Tempo di marcia more interesting (the opening melody was recycled in On the Town), a jazzy fluency driving the march forward though not wholly eliminating the note-spinning. Wei’s ‘blues-notes’ wouldn’t get her a job in a jazz club. A Largo section at the start of the final movement draws some tender chords from the two strings, though lighter two-note oscillations from Wei would add grace and promise. The minimalist motoring of the ensuing Allegro vivo is pretty aimless, though that’s not the players’ fault.

Ronald Perera’s Piano Trio (2002) has strong rhythmic definition and the composer handles the combative harmonic arguments effectively. At last, the musicians find a bit of ‘grit’ in the biting motifs of the first movement, Incisivo, (in his liner note Perera advises, ‘think Beethoven’s fifth symphony’), and the varying textures are well-defined. After a tense opening, the moto perpetuo of the Scorrevole begins its off-kilter race through the sort of metrical games and not-so-playful patterning that the players seem to enjoy. The most interesting movement is the Adagio cantabile e sostenuto, subtitled ‘The Symphony’ which, Perera explains, is an adaptation of a scene for baritone and orchestra from The White Whale, the text of which is drawn from Melville’s Moby Dick (specifically Ahab’s torrent of anguish to his mate Starbuck). Here, the players seem to have found an idiom that plays to their individual and collective strengths. The cleanness of the violin’s high wisps, the slightly brittle sparkle of the piano, the complementary fullness of the cello’s tone and Pelletier’s ever-sensitive phrasing cohere into an eloquent whole as Perera’s songful outpouring journeys through turbulent deep waters. This is beautiful music and lovely playing.

Claire Seymour

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