Sunday , April 21 2024
Two new recordings of Romantic-era music from France and Germany are revealing in different ways.

Music Review: New Recordings of the Saint-Saëns Piano Trios and Brahms Clarinet Sonatas

Trio Latitude 41 Saint-SaensCamille Saint-Saëns wrote just two piano trios. The first, sprightly and relatively straightforward, dates from the 1860s. Some three decades passed before he composed the second, a dense masterpiece of late Romanticism. At first I wondered why Trio Latitude 41 put the later work, Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, first on its new CD and No. 1 in F Major second.

Familiarizing myself with the music, I see the sense in it. It’s the same reason a pop album usually begins with its hookiest numbers. In these works at least, Saint-Saëns of the 1890s speaks more directly to the modern spirit than Saint-Saëns of the 1860s.

Right from the opening figures, the trio shows off a sense of spontaneity to go with the virtuosity of pianist Bernadene Blaha, violinist Livia Sohn, and cellist Luigi Piovano. They bring all the necessary fire to the heated, emotionally charged, technically complex first movement, a brilliant yet accessible statement of independence. In 1892 the composer wrote to a friend of a Trio that “has been lying around in my head for who knows how long and of which I need to rid myself. And this is no small affair!” It’s easy to imagine this “Allegro non troppo” movement stewing in his brain, furiously demanding to be set free.

The second movement begins sweetly, but stormy passages streak through it too. Blaha’s crisp, speedy fingerwork motivates the “Allegretto,” which alternates between quirky 5/8 and dramatic 5/4 – unorthodox time signatures for the 19th century. The more melodic third and fourth movements give Sohn and Piovano ample opportunity to display their tone and easy sense of flow even in the most difficult passages. And the final movement the three seem to speak in one voice, creating an almost orchestral fullness.

The mood of the Piano Trio No. 1 may be less “serious,” but it’s got plenty of active material on which the musicians can display nimbleness and expressivity. They do make the most of the thoughtful mood of the slow second movement, where the instruments trade off the main theme and a haunting, drone-like accompaniment. The scherzo, while lighthearted, also has nervous moments, and moments of rich texture, all of which come through in brilliant colors. And the finale speaks its good mood in a rich language of unisons, chromatics, Mozartian melodies, triumphant declarations, tumbling piano passages, and flecks of contrasting shadow, with a gentle chorale for a crystalline center.

All told, Trio Latitude 41 digs into these relatively rarely performed pieces with gusto and makes a powerful case for them.

On a new Harmonia Mundi recording, clarinetist Lorenzo Coppola and pianist Andreas Staier take a distinctive approach to more familiar material. Like Saint-Saëns’ Piano Trios, there are but two Clarinet Sonatas by Johannes Brahms. Both date from very late in the composer’s life; they were in fact his very last chamber works.

brahms clarinet sonatasCoppola and Staier tone down the romanticism and stress the modernism, producing an angular, strangely accented first movement (“Allegro apassionato”) of the Sonata No. 1. Quick tempos make for a sublimely delicate second (“Andante un poco adagio”) and a third (“Allegro grazioso”) that may sound rushed and weirdly aggressive at first but became comprehensible as I acclimated to it on repeated listens. It also began to remind me of the experiments Debussy would be making very soon afterwards. Attacking the final (“Vivace”) movement more crisply than I’m used to hearing it, the pair finish off the sonata having established their own sharply delineated interpretive philosophy.

Fully dedicated to their combative, proto-modernistic approach in Sonata No. 1, Coppola and Staier temper it somewhat for No. 2, moving things along speedily but still mostly surrendering to the peaceful nature of the work. That doesn’t mean their energy flags. The willowy, melodic first movement gives way to the more motile second, whose stops and starts, melodramatic melodies, and almost religious chorale can be interpreted as almost entirely free of angst but in this quick rendition reveal hints of darkness and pain I hadn’t heard in this music before, even calling Rachmaninoff to mind. In the playful final movement Coppola and Staier again draw out stark, modernistic elements, hurrying rhythms and jumping aggressively on certain notes.

Throughout these sonatas they expose new possibilities, an admirable accomplishment. The liner notes provide details about the instruments. I will simply note that Coppola coaxes a gratifying variety of colors from his clarinet, and the two musicians create sometimes jolting variations in balance.

The disc also gives us Staier alone, with his sharp-edged take on the well-known Sechs Klavierstücke Opus 120. These prove to have a compressed kind of beauty on the 1875 Steinway that Staier plays, a model Brahms approved. Staier’s approach may not reveal any secrets here, but he delves devotedly into the beauty of these pieces, especially the sublime Intermezzo (No. II) and the solemn, bell-like Romanze (No. V). He closes the set by bringing out a shadowy Chopinesque pensiveness in the Intermezzo (No. VI).

Judging from the liner notes, both musicians apply a powerful intellectual rigor to their interpretations. But regardless of the unusual and revealing aspects of these performances, they work for me on a gut level.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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