August 04, 2022


Henri Tomasi: Trio à cordes en forme de divertissement; Jean Cras: Trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle; Émile Goué: Trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle; Jean Françaix: Trio; Robert Casadesus: Trio à cordes; Gustave Samazeuilh: Suite en trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle; Gabriel Pierné: Trois pièces en trio. Black Oak Ensemble (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; Aurélien Fort Pederzoli, viola; David Cunliffe, cello). Cedille. $12 (2 CDs).

Georg Goltermann: Nocturnes and Romances. Katherine Decker, cello; Eun-Hee Park, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     There may be missing masterpieces out in the unexplored wilds of classical music, but most works now being mined from long-fallow portions of the repertoire are of lesser quality – not dross, certainly, but not precious metals, much less gems. It can be pleasantly engaging to hear works that have long been neglected in performance and, in many cases, never recorded before, as long as one does not set expectations of originality or excellence of compositional execution too high. The seven pieces played by the top-notch Black Oak Ensemble on a very well-priced new Cedille release are all well-wrought, smooth, intermittently delightful trifles, finely crafted and serving well as salon or background music – but never genuinely gripping or enthralling enough to be likely to become repertoire mainstays for string trios. Three of the pieces – by Henri Tomasi (1901-1971), Robert Casadesus (1899-1972), and Gustave Samazeuilh (1877-1967) – are world première recordings, and are neither more nor less engaging than the other four. The title of this release, “Avant l’orage” (“Before the Storm”), refers to the period after World War I but before World War II, an interwar era during which all the music was created. The time period and the fact that everything here is French are among the elements that the works have in common. They also share a certain refined sensibility and pleasant urbanity, ruffling no feathers and offering a consistently pleasing, unchallenging listening experience. Tomasi’s four-movement trio (1938) includes an especially affecting, gently swaying second-movement Nocturne – whose sweetness is relieved by well-considered use of dissonance – and a bouncily folklike finale. The 1926 trio by Jean Cras (1879-1932), also in four movements, interestingly combines references to folk music with a tribute to Beethoven’s Op. 132 string quartet in its slow second movement – which also has the instruments imitating the sound of a Breton bagpipe. The three-movement offering by Émile Goué (1904-1946) dates to 1939 and has a more-modern sound than most of the other works heard here, with extended tonality, changing meters and unashamed dissonance even in the lullaby-like second movement. The four-movement trio by Jean Françaix (1912-1997), one of the best-known composers included in this release, is a work from 1933 that is especially well-constructed and filled with playfulness, energy, brightness, and agility, relieved in its slow movement by a charmingly songful melody. Casadesus’ 1938 trio, in three movements, is pleasant enough, although rather scattered in its effect. Samazeuilh’s 1937 Suite en trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle is a six-movement piece tied clearly through its sequence of dance forms to the Baroque era. It was originally written for piano – the “world première” element here refers to the first recording of the composer’s version for strings. The individual dances are well-constructed and reflect their Baroque origins nicely, with the somewhat overdone emotionalism of the third-movement Sarabande contrasting especially well with the bouncy, pizzicato-infused Divertissement that follows. The final piece offered in this recording is the three-movement set by Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937), which dates to the last year of the composer’s life. Pierné, like Françaix, is better-known than the other creators heard here. Pierné’s construction is particularly clever in light of the work being dedicated (as are several of the others in this release) to the once-renowned Trio Pasquier: Pierné musically spells out the notes of the first name of each brother in the trio (each in the clef played by the brother’s instrument), then builds the trio around the “brother” themes. Many composers indulge in this sort of structural cleverness, with the name of Bach often used and with composers such as Shostakovich incorporating numerous self-references into their music. What matters to listeners, though, is whether the music works and is appealing – it should not be necessary to study and analyze the thematic background in order to enjoy the piece. And indeed, Pierné’s work is enjoyable on its own merits, including an amusing finale based on a work by Honoré de Balzac that, again, one need not know in order to find the music pleasant and pleasurable. Pierné’s piece flows well, uses the instruments skillfully, and offers a winning mixture of lyricism and, in the finale, rather mild satire. All the music offered in this recording is performed with considerable skill and apparent enjoyment – and, in turn, it offers enjoyment of a mild and agreeable type to listeners, proffering nothing of great consequence but much that is abundantly entertaining.

     Music intended as pleasant rather than profound is sometimes referred to dismissively as salon music, but in fact there is much to be enjoyed in music written originally for performance in informal salon settings rather than formal concert or recital halls. Much of the music by Georg Goltermann (1824-1898), including everything on an MSR Classics CD featuring Katherine Decker and Eun-Hee Park, is of the “salon” type; and if nothing here is especially memorable, nothing is at all displeasing, either. Goltermann was a cellist of considerable skill, composing eight concertos for cello and orchestra as well as many shorter pieces for his chosen instrument. Decker, ably backed up by Park, offers a very good selection of the composer’s cello-and-piano nocturnes, romances and similar pieces. Goltermann was a skilled tunesmith – his melodies are invariably sweet, hummable and pleasant, if not genuinely memorable: many of these pieces, despite their different titles and provenance, could easily be swapped for each other. Decker and Park offer three sets of three pieces each: Trois Romances Symbolique, Op. 95; Trois Romances Sans Paroles, Op. 90; and Trois Nocturnes, Op. 125. The “symbolic” set includes the designations “Faith,” “Charity,” and “Hope,” but there is nothing particularly representational in any of these works or, indeed, in any of those in the other complete sets. The remainder of the disc is devoted to individual works taken from sets of Morceaux Caractéristiques, Morceaux Faciles, Morceaux de Salon, and so forth. There is nothing particularly challenging to the ear in any of this music – and, in truth, not much that is challenging to play, either: to the extent that Goltermann’s music is still heard, it is generally in teaching settings. Certainly the warm expressiveness that Decker finds in the cello parts of all these works was put there quite intentionally by the composer, who seems to have cared more about pleasing the aural palate than about trying to create music incorporating any particular creative spark or intensity. This may sound like damnation with faint praise, and to some extent it is; but really, there is no reason to condemn this inevitably ear-pleasing, pretty, sweetly lyrical if rather soulless music. It sounds good, it lies well on the cello, it does not strain performers or listeners overmuch, and it can be a restful experience – the sort of thing worth hearing on a grey, drizzly day, or perhaps as night begins to fall (some of the works have a crepuscular quality). By no stretch of the imagination is this great or even important music, but it never pretends to be: Goltermann clearly wrote to please and instruct, and the pieces here, inconsequential though they may be in musical terms, accomplish their aims with skill and sensitivity.

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