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Breath-taking performances…

Musicweb International, Philip R Buttall – Recommended

As the saying goes, you wait ages for a bus and then two come along at once. For, having only just reviewed a CD of CPE Bach’s Piano Concertos, I now have in front of me a new two-disc set of the composer’s Complete Piano Trios. In my earlier review, I wrote at some length about Emanuel and his music, and the vital role he plays not only in the transition from the Baroque period to the Classical, but also in the seeds he subsequently sows which will eventually blossom into full-blown Romanticism.

One of the things that impressed me as soon as I opened the new jewel case was the enclosed CD booklet. It hadn’t been written by some third-party musicologist, or devotee of the composer, as can often be the case, but here the author is Thai-British pianist Prach Boondiskulchok, who is part of the Linos Piano Trio.

A cursory glance shows that he has simply divided things into three sections – some biographical details, the instruments used, and the music itself. This not only adds clarity and order to the text – which follows in German – but Boondiskulchok is the best qualified here to discuss the often-thorny issue of historical versus modern instruments in performance practice, and particularly when this involves the keyboard. Couple this with a sense of physical quality and presentation, and everything looks set fair before a single note is auditioned.

In total there are 12 three-movement works, and one that comprises just a single long movement. As I commented in my previous review, Emanuel happened to come along just at the right time, when the piano was featuring more and more in the domestic situation, and while works for the solo instrument became popular, there was felt a greater need for a more social environment, so violin and cello were added to the mix – the Piano Trio as we know it, while still referred to more often as piano pieces, accompanied by the two string instruments.

In 1775, Emanuel could see the obvious financial potential in all this, so produced Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte accompanied by Violin and Violoncello – his Wq 89 set, and subsequently followed these with two more sets, Wq 90 and 91 respectively. The exact order in which the trios appeared is in doubt, but, and as one might expect, there is a palpable sense of progression through the three sets where, for example, the keyboard writing is less involved in Wq 89, while becoming noticeably more virtuosic in the following two sets. In terms of how the trios are arranged over the 2CD set, Boondiskulchok confirms that he and his two Linos colleagues have reordered them ‘to curate a balanced listening experience that can be enjoyed from end to end’.

Moving on to the question of authenticity in performance, I always recall a question that frequently cropped up during the viva section of a particular piano-teaching diploma. In those days, most performances would open with a Bach Prelude and Fugue from the ‘48’, which would then later prompt the examiners to ask what the candidate felt about pedalling in a Bach Fugue. At the time, the sample answers always tended to condone the judicious use of the sustaining pedal, because this is really the sine qua non of the piano, unlike the harpsichord, and here Bach’s original conception is being played on the former. Over the years these attitudes have changed, something which Boondiskulchok acknowledges, but he goes on to elaborate further, and explains the individual Linos ‘take’ on this, which makes for interesting reading. The Linos Trio confirms that they actually reject both arguments, their rationale being that, while Emanuel’s music is no doubt most at home on historically-correct instruments, he would surely prefer them to be played and heard as widely as possible. They have therefore chosen to make their debut CD, and the first complete recording of Emanuel’s trios on modern instruments, allowing their subsequent performance to speak for itself and hopefully to justify their decision.

While initially gathering some background information, I came across an associated media release where three of the trios appeared to have nicknames, rather like Haydn’s ‘Gypsy, Mozart’s Kegelstatt, or Beethoven’s Ghost Trios. These, however, didn’t appear on any main listing on the CD documentation itself.

Again, thanks to the thoroughness of Boondiskulchok’s notes, it transpires that the nicknames were given to the three trios in question, by the Linos players themselves. To that end, CD 1, which features the earlier Wq 89 set, opens with the Trio No 5 in E minor, which they refer to as The Terror. I hadn’t read that before I put the first CD on, but I can certainly see where they got their nickname from – and only a few seconds into the first movement, too. But I have no intention of saying more, and spoiling the effect. I can, however, say that what you will hear is just so typical of Emanuel’s writing at the time, with its abundant variety, freedoms and liberties along the way, sudden contrasts and pauses, which together make the twists and turns in his music so very unpredictable, yet totally captivating Some of the harmonies are also really innovative for the time, and, as such, it appears as no surprise where a lot of Mozart’s and Haydn’s language – and indeed Beethoven’s, too – comes from.

In terms of form overall, the Trios almost suggest that Emanuel had a varied and endless stock of movement-types which he freely shuffles around, when he comes to assemble each successive trio. The brisker opening movements favour a bipartite sonata-form plan, where each section is repeated, along the lines of a Domenico Scarlatti keyboard sonata, while the Finales are rondos. But if that seems to suggest that all 13 trios are very much cast in the same mould, nothing could be further from the truth.

The sprightly Allegretto opening of Trio No 5 is followed by a shorter and altogether more peaceful Larghetto interlude that leads directly into the final Allegro, and which returns to the spirit of the opening movement. The following Trio No 2 in C basically adheres to the same pattern, although the opening movement – an Andantino grazioso – is somewhat slower than its predecessor. The short middle movement of the Trio No 3 in A – marked Arioso – initially has something of a spiritual feel to it, before becoming a bright and breezy Allegro di molto, to round the work off with élan. Trio No 6 in D is another example with its own players’ nickname, on this occasion, The Majestic. The reason is pretty clear, given that it opens in Handelian style, and it’s in the ‘trumpet’ key of D. On this occasion it comprises a doleful Andantino, framed by two invigorating Allegros. Trio No 1 in B flat reverts to the Allegretto – Larghetto – Allegro pattern, while the final trio on CD1, No 4 in E flat, presents two fairly standard Andantino and Andante movements respectively, but followed by something unique among the Trios in the shape of a Tempo di Minuetto, itself replete with its unassuming wit and engaging charm.

CD2 contains the remaining two sets of piano trios – Wq 90 and 91 respectively – and, just as on CD1, the players mix up the running order, picking from each set along the way. For all this, CD2 is only some 14 minutes longer than CD1, and similarly opens with another trio with an assigned nickname. Here they refer to Trio No 3 in F, Wq 91 as Madness, something which again becomes abundantly clear within the first few seconds or so. Should you decide to purchase the new set, you will probably agree that Madness ranks considerably higher on the Richter scale than The Terror, purely in terms of dramatic effect. However, after the vagaries of the opening Andante, the rest of the Trio plays out more simply, with the welcome humour of the final Allegretto acting as a perfect foil to what went before.

With its virtuosic keyboard part, Boondiskulchok informs us that the next work – Trio No 2 in C, Wq 90 – is the most classical-sounding, and the most ‘sane’ of the set, although, as the pianist confirms, his use of the adjective reflects CPE Bach’s standards, so there will still be plenty of unforeseen moments along the way. Now, in terms of running order, the Linos players have gone for symmetry, as far as the next four trios are concerned. Each pair opens with a work in the minor key – something less common among the Piano Trios – while the second work features a particularly extravagant rondo on each occasion. Trio No 1 in A minor, Wq 90, is the only example to open with a fast presto movement, which involves some devilish right-hand passage work for the pianist, and makes you wonder how these works – initially advertised as ‘accompanied sonatas that are not too difficult’ – would have been received by the average pianist running them through at home with a few friends. The first pairing is completed by Trio No 2 in G, Wq 90, after which come Trio No 1 in E minor, and Trio No 2 in D, both from the Wq 91 set. Again there are many delights to savour in these four works.

The final work on CD2 is actually the last one in terms of publication order, Trio No 4 in C, Wq 91, and which also happens to be Emanuel’s only example written in one long single movement – an Arioso with nine variations. As Boondiskulchok comments, the work is somewhat reminiscent of Emanuel’s father’s epic Goldberg Variations (1741), both in terms of shape overall, and Aria Da Capo design. But Bach the son has still got many surprises in store for the listener as the music unfolds, and he takes his final leave of the Piano Trio genre, interestingly not in a blaze of glory, but rather in tranquil, and reflective fashion.

It sometimes happens that a new CD comes along, where the playing and recording are really outstanding, but the booklet, or packaging let it down. But when you encounter a product that ticks every available box and more, you feel straightaway that you have something quite special in front of you.

Perhaps I was already attuned to CPE Bach’s wavelength, or perhaps piano trios are one of my favourite genres, but either way

I just couldn’t stop listening to this 2CD set, such was its musical appeal and entertainment value. The music itself has so much to say, and says it in so many fascinating, and often surprising ways, that the listener hasn’t got time to get bored at any point.

Unsurprisingly the recording is second to none, capturing the widest dynamic range from each instrument, while ever mindful of the overall balance of the trio. The way the clarity of the piano is captured, for example, really does justice to every nuance from the player, and especially where such elaborate use of ornamentation is so germane to the style.

It also very much attests to the expertise at the University of Surrey, which has been running its renowned Music and Sound Recording (Tonmeister) Degree course for many years

Rather as with Emanuel’s own business acumen, while there could have been many other composers to choose from for their debut CD, the Linos Trio were especially astute in their choice for two reasons.

Firstly, apart from a single CD on the cpo label, featuring five of Emanuel’s Piano Trios, played on historical instruments by Trio 1790 (cpo 999 216-2), there is currently nothing else available, so this recording of his complete output for the genre comes at just the right time.

Secondly, the Linos Piano Trio seems uniquely placed to have the knack of replicating the effect on audiences at the time, while equally being able to thrill listeners of today.

Their breath-taking performances really show off the unique qualities of Emanuel’s writing, and which they achieve in two specific ways. Individually, and in combination, each player exudes abundant technical mastery, but their most telling quality is the way in which they interpret and make the most of the writing, particularly the more bizarre moments.

They are never averse to taking the odd interpretative gamble, but they have the confidence and panache to ensure that everything comes off on the day – rather like former trapeze artists, who, not bound by today’s plethora of Health and Safety regulations, just seemed more impressive when working without a safety net.

This has to be the way to approach CPE Bach’s Piano Trios and perhaps the performers’ ethnic mix – a Thai-British pianist, German-Brazilian violinist, and French-born cellist with a Slavic first name – accounts for this to some degree. Certainly if we were talking cooking, then there would clearly be a real potential for a fascinating mix of cuisines, colours, and spices.

In the final analysis, I feel this new set far exceeds all that Boondiskulchok and his fellow-performers sought to achieve at the planning stage, and is not only a most valuable addition to the repertoire and history of the Piano Trio genre as such, but more importantly it further confirms the true importance and unique talent of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in his own right.

The finished product comprises more than two hours of music of great variety, with so many surprises along the way, and is already more than enough to keep the listener totally engaged throughout. The fact, though, that it is also so well performed, and in the true spirit of chamber music playing, where social interaction and the pure fun and enjoyment of making music together are so very evident, now seems like some mouth-watering icing on an already lip-smacking confection.

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22/09/2020