Play of Colours (Farbenspiel)
The reason Bax’s Elegiac Trio has been recorded so frequently – more often than any other of his works excepting Tintagel and the Clarinet Sonata – has something to do with its delectable brevity, but more to do with the fact that it makes an ideal companion to Debussy’s famous sonata for the same, unusual forces. Because the English work was written one year after the French, the assumption has often been made that its composer was consciously writing an hommage: but Graham Parlett’s recent examination of composition, performance and publication dates suggests strongly that Bax could not have heard Debussy’s masterly sonata (or studied the score) before writing his own. The near-simultaneous appearance of these lovely works may well have been happy chance.
So in an unusually crowded (and international) field, how does the newcomer from Trio Partout fare? Not too well, for me. Although the Austrian troika is made up of distinguished soloists, there is a sobriety about their playing, a lack of fancy which keeps Bax’s bardic flights earthbound. Notes and dynamics are intact, but there’s little momentum and less magic. The recording quality doesn’t help lift the music, either: although instrumental balances are good, the acoustic of the Barocksaal in Stift Vorau (Styria) proves warmly reverberative and a mite distant, rendering Bax’s rainbow palette down towards uniform grey and making the album’s attractive title Play of Colours a hostage to fortune. Perhaps the players interpreted ‘elegiac’ as ‘funereal’: to be sure, there’s little sense of hope about their sombre reading.
The same snags marred my enjoyment of Debussy’s elusive sonata. Birgit Ramsl-Gaal’s tone is aristocratically mellow, her playing wonderfully agile; but her projected personality here seems too quietly introverted to encompass the full range of quicksilver mood changes. Viola and harp – just as splendid technically – follow the flautist’s lead; and given those recording limitations, the results seem cautious and muted, rather than cleanly impressionist.
Fortunately two substantial rarities come off better. Johannes Maria Straud (b. 1974) is one of Austria’s leading younger composers. Although he has received large-scale commissions from Vienna’s Philharmonic Orchestra and State Opera, his intriguingly-titled Sydenham Music is a miniature essay in sonorities inspired by Pissarro’s famous 1870 landscape ‘The Avenue, Sydenham’ (Lawrie Park Road SE26, near Crystal Palace, where the composer also lived during two years of London study). Its sensitive, piquant dabs of cool colour and ear-catching instrumental combinations build to a surprisingly agitated climax, and its seven-minute span is beautifully paced.
I learned from Christian Heindl’s informative notes that Harald Genzmer (1909-2007) was a favourite pupil of Hindemith, but on this showing the student’s music is more conservative than the master’s. The Trio’s four, neo-classical movements are conventionally laid out but varied in personality, from the opening, modal-flavoured fantasy through a strongly-marked scherzo and trio, to the serene nocturne at the heart of the work. The variations-finale, based on a plain-sounding hymn tune, reminded me of the (much more complex) theme and variations from Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet. The results are unpretentious, communicative and pleasant; and the same is true of Trio Partout’s assured performance. Certainly the two Germanic works here register more positively than the familiar French and English standards, and Gramola’s attractive gatefold presentation enhances the disc’s appeal.
© Christopher Webber 2019
Play of Colours (Farbenspiel)
Trio Partout (Birgit Ramsl-Gaal, flute; Johannes Flieder, viola; Gabriela Mossyrsch, harp) Debussy: Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915); Johannes Maria Staud:Sydenham Music (2007); Bax: Elegiac Trio (1916); Harald Genzmer: Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp (1947)
Gramola CD 99196 (55:15).
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