Contemporary American Piano Trios.

Contemporary American Piano Trios. – sound recording reviews

Joe Brumbeloe

The Francesco Trio, consisting of Nathan Schwartz (piano), Miwako Watanabe (violin), and Bonnie Hampom (cello), has long demonstrated a commitment to the development of the literature for piano trio through performances and commissions of new works since the inception of the ensemble in 1965. Two of the four compositions presented on Contemporary American Piano Trios were written for this ensemble: Seymour Shifrin’s Trio (1974) and Andrew Imbrie’s Trio no. 2 (1989). The performances of the other pieces on this release, John Harbison’s Piano Trio (1969) and Mel Powell’s Trio, op. 5 (1957), were also prepared with close collaborations between the ensemble and the composers. Another aspect that unifies this collection is that each of the performers and composers featured on this recording spent a significant portion of his or her career on the West Coast.

Andrew Imbrie (b. 1921) studied briefly with Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau, France, and worked for several years with Roger Sessions, first privately and then at Princeton University and at the University of California at Berkeley (M.A., 1947). He joined the faculty at Berkeley as a professor of music in 1960 and in 1970 was appointed chairperson of the composition department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The three movements of his Trio no. 1 (Allegretto cantabile, Sostenuto e con fuoco, and Allegro vivace) are described by the composer in his extensive contribution to the liner notes: “The first begins with a lilting, rhythmically flexible piano introduction, to which the strings soon add a wide-ranging melody of several phrases’ duration…. Whereas the first movement consists of rapid exchanges and interweavings of the three instrumental sounds, the second allows the protagonists to speak singly, with fewer interruptions…. The concluding movement is bright in coloration and exploits the virtuosity of the performers.” The trio is a fascinating, major work that can be profitably compared to the later works of Imbrie’s teacher, Roger Sessions. Both composers pursue a freely atonal idiom, while infusing their work with an intense lyricism and lucid formal logic.

Seymour Shifrin (1926-79) studied composition at Columbia University with William Schuman and Otto Luening, graduating in 1947 (M.A., 1949). He later traveled to France as a Fulbright scholar to study with Darius Milhaud (1951-52). Shifrin taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1952 through 1966 and at Brandeis University from 1966 to 1979. He describes his one-movement trio in the liner notes as “one continuous movement, framed by a section which, at the opening, is stated twice and at the movement’s close recurs, its groups intact but their order re-arranged, reflecting a new criterion for their chronology. What occurs at the movement’s core is, simply put, a discourse of dialogues — of instruments and of formal parts. There are two principal texturally contrasting elements: one chordal, succinct, marked by internal dynamic contrasts; the other, long continuous pianissimo lines counterpointing the three instruments.” In contrast to Imbrie’s trio, Shifrin’s piece has a closer affinity to the second Viennese school of intense expressionistic tendencies, and it presents some formidable technical demands on the performers.

John Harbison (b. 1938) studied at Harvard University with Earl Kim (B.A., 1960) and at Princeton with Roger Sessions (M.F.A., 1963) before accepting his present position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969. His brief one-movement piano trio from 1969 was conceived as a “lyric intermezzo to be played at concerts by this arch-19th-century combination.” The piece could be described as a set of variations, with different characteristics evoked as much through rapidly changing compositional techniques and textures as through the changing instrumental colors produced through the variety of performance techniques required of the string players.

Mel Powell (b. 1923), the final composer represented on this CD, was recognized in his youth as a jazz pianist as well as a composer-arranger for Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. He also studied composition with Paul Hindemith at Yale University (B.M., 1952). After teaching at Mannes College of Music and Queens College, he was appointed an instructor at Yale University in 1957 and was later named chair of that institution’s composition faculty. From 1969 to 1975 he was dean of the music faculty of the California Institute of the Arts. His Trio, op. 5, comprises four brief movements: Allegro comodo, Marcia grottesca, Theme and variations, and Vivace assai. The composition is the most accessible of the pieces on the CD, with its almost neoclassical approach to tonality, texture, and form.

The Francesco Trio has provided a sympathetic and convincing performance of all of the works. The performers are clearly equal to the task of bringing to the fore the broad expressive range of energy, passion, intelligence, and wit to be found in the work of these four American composers. The production quality of the CD also recommends it: the digital recording is impeccable, and the liner notes are both extensive and informative.

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