Glorious French String Trios from Black Oak Ensemble and Cedille Records

Cedille is on a roll this Fall (2022) with some extraordinarily good chamber music releases. Notable among them is the Dover Quartet’s final Beethoven installment, followed by the Pacifica Quartet’s newest recording in over 2 years, due in November. But snuggled in between those is this little gem, Avant l’orage, from the Black Oak Ensemble

I actually passed over this title several times while browsing new releases, primarily because of the drab picture on the front. If I have any fault of Cedille’s production team, it is their propensity for gray, unenticing covers on many of their releases. Luckily, and quite coincidentally while searching for recordings of two unjustly neglected composers (Henri Tomasi and Jean Cras), I landed on this 2-CD set which features string trios from both of them! Thus I finally gave it a closer look. Feeling like I hit the jackpot, I immediately ordered it. And what a find it is! 

I must begin with Cedille’s booklet, which is another tour de force in music history and education. (Another prime example is the one included in Rachel Bart Pine’s recent disc of Violin Concertos by Black Composers – see my review elsewhere on this blog). This essay, written by Elinor Olin, a professor at Northern Illinois University School of Music, is a wealth of information about these composers and their music – especially important when exploring new music from relatively rare composers. It’s worth noting, this release contains no less than 3 world premier recordings – by Tomasi, Casadesus and Samazeuilh.

Jumping into the two works on Disc One which prompted me to buy this release, the Tomasi came as a bit of a surprise. I know this composer from his flute works (which I played in college) and his magnificent, marvelously haunting Saxophone Concerto, all of which are fairly “modern” in sound with regard to structure and tonality. But his Trio of 1938 is tonal and definitely more lighthearted and melodious than what I would have expected. I was especially surprised to hear a Baroque Menuet influencing the opening Prelude, while the melancholy viola tune in the 2nd movement is perhaps more characteristic of the composer. A delightful Scherzo leads to a folk-dance Finale, giving us an intriguing glimpse into another, more alluring side of Tomasi. Anyone who hesitates to explore this composer really should give this a try. 

The Cras which follows, though, is decidedly more accomplished. Instantly we are transported to the more Impressionistic world of Debussy and, especially, Ravel. Its soundscape is more rhapsodic than Tomasi’s, with rich, harmonic expression. The surprise here comes in the Lent 2nd movement, which pays homage to the slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet #15 (Opus 132). The animated 3rd movement instantly brings smiles, with its jaunty rhythms reminding me of the English countryside; and the finale too, which is based on a Celtic jig. Both, though, are infused with a strong French accent and the unmistakable flavor of Ravel! What a wonderful and unique combination.

What really impressed me about the Cras – and certainly the Black Oak Ensemble’s playing of it – is how utterly orchestral it sounds. It is so masterfully scored, with such variety of color and textures, I had to keep reminding myself there were only three players at work here. What I hear positively belies the fact that just 3 stringed instruments are producing this palette of sounds.

Next is a composer completely new to me – Emile Goue. His Trio was composed in 1939 but not premiered until 1946, just 6 months before his untimely death at the age of just 42. After the Impressionistic Cras, Goue is decidedly more overtly “modern” – not quite tonal and with frequently changing meter. Nonetheless, his music is melodic and alluring, particularly the fervent lullaby heard in the central Adagio. The Finale is another thoroughly enjoyable folk dance, more energetic than Tomasi’s lighthearted one and not quite as fun as Cras’s jig.

Goue, another obvious master of orchestration, features the cello rather more prominently than some of the other composers, to great effect. And he is more inclined toward storytelling – intriguing and interesting, with descriptive characterization and variety of moods and dynamics, rather than sweeping us away with rhapsodic splendor. I couldn’t help thinking this delightful work would make a wonderful ballet. The playing of the Black Oak Ensemble brings this music to life with such vividness I was compelled to listen to it again before moving on. 

And to more familiar territory we come with Francaix‘s glorious Trio. Light on its feet, whisking us aloft with intricate and delectable inner details, Francaix’s music is characteristically graceful and scintillating. We also instantly recognize his penchant for writing extremely difficult passages, requiring virtuoso playing and precision of ensemble while making it sound effortless and nimble. And once again, I marvel at the accomplishment of Black Oak Ensemble. Their playing here is sparkling and effervescent. The piece isn’t all animated though. There is a pensive central Andante, more somber than I’m used to hearing from this composer, providing a moving interlude.

With Disc Two we venture even further into uncharted territory with two more world premiers. And this music tends to be quite different from that on the first disc.

Casadesus was best known as a concert pianist and I have the SONY box set of him playing Mozart Piano Concertos with George Szell – which is excellent. I also found on my shelves a recording of one of his own compositions, the Concerto for Two Pianos on the CPO label. I remember that piece was good without being particularly memorable. And such is the case with his Trio here as well. Compared to the glories heard on Disc One, the Casadesus is not particularly “French” in flavor, nor is it as willingly crowd-pleasing. It sounds almost Germanic, as if perhaps trying a little too hard to be a “serious” composition. The first movement isn’t very melodious and is a bit “notey”, while the second movement is quite bleak. However, there is a propulsive energy in the Allegro finale which is engaging, although it too is rather notey and busy. The piece is certainly interesting and worth a listen, and I actually enjoyed the occasional nod toward Hindemith.

We return to an unmistakably French flavor with Samazeuilh‘s delightful Suite, where we are instantly greeted with a delectable, sweetly singing violin tune, with a most attractive viola filigree and rocking cello underlying it. There is a fervent intensity and harmonic adventurousness here which transports us from impressionism firmly into the 20th-Century. Adding to the rich texture, Samazeuilh features the viola rather more than usual, spotlighting an unusually beautiful tone from this group’s wonderful violist, Aurelien Fort Pederzoli (who, incidentally, was a founding member and former 2nd violinist of the fabulous Spektral Quartet).

The Suite consists of 6 contrasting movements, many of them notable for their tuneful simplicity and sparse scoring. It was during these sections I was struck by the gorgeous acoustic in which they were recorded, captured magnificently by the Cedille engineers. (More on this below.) Elsewhere, we hear captivating animated sections: the Divertimento, for example, positively dances! While the Farlane dashes us to the end with a courtly waltz. I think I enjoyed this piece as much as those on Disc One. It is astonishing to consider this is its premier recording; it deserves to be heard much more often.

Finally we come to the last work on the program, written by “the elder statesman of the group”, Gabriel Pierne. This is among his final works and was not premiered until 1938, a year after his death. It is definitely a mature work from a seasoned composer – substantial too, lasting over 20 minutes. The first two movements are decidedly darker and more serious than the Samazeuilh, closer in atmosphere to the Casadesus.

The opening movement (itself lasting 9 minutes) is somewhat desolate and sparse – sprawling along until midway, when a more established rhythmic pulse develops and the mood gains vitality and optimism. The central Chanson opens with a contrapuntal duet for viola and cello before the violin enters with an expressive song. Soon the entire trio unifies with increasing tension and passion, generating a very moving piece of music.  

The final movement is completely different and reminds us of the storytelling prowess of Goue. It is based on a tale depicting three tipsy cats (an ironic reference to the three priests (clercqs) of the title) stumbling into a fair! It is frisky and jovial, with glissandi and giocoso tempo swings. It’s not over-done though; this composer is far too accomplished and cultivated for ostentation. It surely brings smiles though, in stark contrast to the seriousness of the earlier movements. And the Black Oak Ensemble once again displays their gifts of bringing this music to life with consummate refinement.

In sum, this is a glorious collection of rare and never-before-heard French string trios from the 1920s/30s. I enjoyed it so much I’ve listened to it, in its entirety, twice already and still haven’t filed it away on the shelf. The playing is simply glorious and the recorded sound from Cedille is excellent. Interestingly, I discovered in the booklet that two different recording locations were utilized for this project, and each piece was recorded on different dates. This undoubtedly accounts for my attention being drawn to the slightly different, more luscious acoustic heard in some works more than in others. However, I am astonished at the consistency from session to session. 

In closing, I’d say Cedille Records has struck gold with some of the chamber groups on their roster, such as the Dover and Pacifica Quartets and Black Oak Ensemble. I highly urge Cedille to get these folks into the recording studio as often as possible. 

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