I couldn't resist listening to another disc on the Prospero label, which the producer graciously sent to me. An entire disc played by Trio Eclipse, a clarinet, a cello and a piano, isn't something I would normally go for. And I wouldn't expect it to be consumed all in one sitting. But as it turns out, it's just what I needed on a dreary snowy day here in Colorado.
It's one of the most interesting programs I've had the pleasure of hearing in a long while. Even though each piece is scored identically, each is completely different from the one which precedes it, providing endless variety. And almost all are completely unknown to me. So each track brought a different reaction - a smile here, a raised eyebrow there; but all had me searching the booklet for more information - always a good sign!
Speaking of the booklet, this is one of the most impressive, lavish productions I've ever seen. It comes in a hard-back, CD-sized book, with over 45 pages of printed material (in several languages). Information about the composers, the music, the performers, and all the pertinent recording information is included, along with high quality glossy photographs of the composer and musicians. You won't find this level (quality or quantity) of information in most releases from other labels. This is a Martin Korn Music Production, a co-production with SRF2 Kultur.
I skipped over the first track (an arrangement of Gershwin's An American In Paris) because I thought it would be hokey. (I was wrong.) Jumping right into Nino Rota's Trio, I was not disappointed. This is a substantial, well-constructed, almost symphonic work in 3 movements, written specifically for this combination of instruments. If one is familiar with the composer, this piece speaks the same musical language as his more established orchestral creations. It is musically skilled and full of character, in a more traditionally Classical way, than are the remaining works on this program.
The next three works are completely different - and obviously more contemporary. From Thomas Demenga (b. 1954), his Summer Breeze II, after a very somber opening, switches gears and begins an almost smooth-jazz feel. But then that is soon gone, taking on a bit of minimalist pulse to it, and finally blossoming into a clarinet rhapsody. It is just a touch cool and suave, just as the title might suggest.
Following it, we have Siena, by Simon Heggendorn (b. 1982). It's laugh-out-loud fun, and instantly reminded me of a 1970s, pre-disco, TV show theme (ala "The Love Boat" - ha!). But, it's so much more than that. I've got to think that in a performance less professionally committed than this from Trio Eclipse, this music could veer close to becoming over the top. But it never gets that far here. It was fun, though. The booklet tells us Mr. Heggendorn has roots in classical and jazz. And there are many moments where a jazz influence can be heard, especially in the free-style clarinet writing.
Sean Hickey (b. 1970) takes us into much more modern, and serious, territory with his Tiergarten. This is a substantial work (lasting nearly 12 minutes), with a distinct variety of moods. It features the clarinet and piano most prominently, with the cello often supplying an accompanying role. I was surprised to read in the booklet that Mr. Hickey is "closely associated with the electric guitar", and continues a strong interest in Rock and Pop music. Nevertheless, this piece was so well crafted, I had to research him a little bit. I was pleased to find two major Classical CDs of his music have been released on one of my favorite labels from the past, the invaluable and much-lamented Delos label. A disc of concertos (one each for cello and clarinet), and another of piano and chamber music, can still be obtained from Amazon.
Wrapping up this program, we come to my favorite piece on this disc. Daniel Schnyder (b. 1961) explores A Friday Night in August. Right from the get-go, the furiously swirling sounds remind me of a buzzing swarm of insects in late summer. But it soon begins an irresistible, rhythmic dance, allowing these players the opportunity to display their virtuoso chops. Yet the plaintive clarinet song in the central section has just a hint of Gershwin's Summertime to it, interspersed with Rhapsody In Blue-style lip-slurs (glissandi). Finally, a jaunty, rhythmic, jazzy celebratory dance breaks out to end the night, and I find myself longing for summer.
Finally, I force myself back to the first track that I skipped over. Gershwin's mega-popular orchestral work, An American In Paris, is arranged here specially for Trio Eclipse by Stefan Schroter. I dutifully pressed play, knowing in my heart it was going to be completely unnecessary, and wondering, 'why?' But guess what? I was so completely wrong! Those preconceived notions turned out to be utter nonsense. It is so well orchestrated for this specific ensemble, and so idiomatically played by these fabulous musicians, I was amazed how well it works. Ultimately, though, after awhile one does wish for a change in tonality in the upper registers, as the bright clarinet dominates for such long stretches. But, it is nonetheless a fascinating arrangement.
Unusually, I have listed birth years here for the younger composers for a reason - to illustrate the wealth of talent and treasures to be discovered and explored from 20th- and 21st-century composers. Long gone are the bleak generations of composers who tried so desperately to validate and legitimize exploratory non-music, atonality, serialism, 12-tone rows, minimalism, etc. etc. And I couldn't be happier that we've moved on from all that noise. This enterprising disc from the fabulous Prospero label, and these fine musicians, provides great insight into what's out there these days. And I found all of it to be not only worthwhile, but richly rewarding musically - and endlessly entertaining. It is tonal, musical, inspiring and bursting with true creativity. And I loved the subtle jazz influences found in many of these pieces.
I can't finish this review without commenting further about these musicians and the recorded sound. The quality of music-making from these three young musicians is impressive. They consistently bring this new music splendidly to life, with enthusiasm, a unified approach, and individual personalities. The booklet says it better than I can when it describes the Trio Eclipse as possessing "the perfect balance between the liberties of solo playing and the unity of their performance". That is spot on. And they "coalesce into a homogenous ensemble". Again, spot on. These qualities make them special.
Pianist, Benedek Horvath, in particular, is most accomplished (more than compensating for the lack of an orchestra in the Gershwin, for example), and plays with a delicacy of touch that is highly attractive throughout. Lionel Andrey's clarinet playing is always characterful, sounding clear and bright (almost too bright). His tone is less dark and wooden than we typically hear in more traditional Classical fare, but it suits this music. The highlight for me, though, is the beautiful, smooth, absolutely grain-less sound of cellist Sebastian Bruan. What a gorgeously singing legato he produces. Magnificent.
Finally, the recorded sound is excellent - clear and close-up in an appropriately intimate way. It affords the group tremendous presence, within a spacious acoustic. If I had to find fault, the balance tends to spotlight the clarinet rather too much. The brightness I attribute to the clarinet tone may very well be, at least partially, caused by the microphone placement.
This is the second disc from Prospero I have heard recently, and it proves to be another highly professional production in every way. I can unhesitatingly recommend it for something a little different; a little new; and a whole lot of fun.