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A Skilful Balance

The Icicle Creek
Piano Trio -
reviewed by

'... rhythmically brisk, considered performances ...'

Icicle Creek Piano Trio - Schubert, Ravel. © 2008 Con Brio Recordings

This youthful all-female piano trio brings together a Russian pianist, British cellist and American violinist -- the resident ensemble at purpose-built Icicle Creek Music Centre (established 1995). In addition Ezhokina and Singer are ICMC's two co-artistic directors.

What an inspiring setting to make fine music; ICMC is located in the foothills of the Cascades at Leavenworth, a small Washington State town modeled on Bavarian village lines.

Here the trio are heard on Con Brio Recordings, a new 'label on the block' formed by clarinetist Edward Hollcraft and his wife Carol Greenley, operating from Hollcraft Studios in Pleasant Hill, California.

The word most frequently encountered in Leavenworth is 'Willkommen' and it seems to typify the mood and measure of this trio's performances of two much recorded works; beacons of light in the chamber music firmament.

These are rhythmically brisk, considered performances of which the ladies must, and should be proud. ICPT achieves a skilful balance and the inner dialogue is consistently maintained. I was especially taken with the effectively delineated tread between cello and piano at the outset of Schubert's wonderful second movement.

Listen -- Schubert: Andante Con Moto (Op 100)
(track 6, 0:00-1:22) © 2008 Con Brio Recordings

Nonetheless ICPT must stand or fall on its own merits, for with better established labels, music lovers are spoilt for choice. Legendary and modern performers of stellar reputation have committed both Ravel's A minor Piano Trio and Schubert E flat Piano Trio, Op 100 to disc.

Despite the fifties vintage, the Schubert Opus 100 was never accorded more passion and pathos than with pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, violinist Alexander Schneider and Pablo Casals, cello (on Sony / Casals Edition), recorded in 1952. Its sole drawback was Casals' audible groaning, especially in the Andante con moto.

The sixties brought Casals' inspired successors -- Eugene Istomin (piano), Isaac Stern (violin) and cellist Leonard Rose (also on Sony).

Further legendary performers left us heartfelt Schubert and the work rubs shoulders with Brahms in a recording by Artur Rubinstein (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin) and Pierre Fournier (cello) -- Volume 73 in the Rubinstein Collection on RCA.

Others seek to emulate the sounds Schubert's audiences might have heard 180 years ago. One such is The Atlantis Ensemble: Jaap Schroeder, violin; Penelope Crawford, fortepiano (Conrad Graf, Vienna, circa 1835) and Enid Sutherland, cello (on WLBR 9704).

Crawford's Graf achieves a perfect equanimity, cushioning the other instruments with a woody quality reminiscent of days when life was simpler. It distinguishes fine fortepianos from their modern equivalents, as does the nacreous high treble vital in a historically informed (1827) account.

Not to be outdone The Mozartean Players offer similar retrospective performances -- its personnel; Steven Lubin (fortepiano), Stanley Ritchie (classical violin) and Myron Lutzke (classical cello), on harmonia mundi, France.

Returning to the Leavenworth ladies, with the best will in the world I found their account of Ravel's opening Modéré overly prosaic for my taste.

Listen -- Ravel: Modéré (Piano Trio in A minor)
(track 1, 0:51-1:55) © 2008 Con Brio Recordings

Inspiration for the content of this Trio (dedicated to Ravel's counterpoint teacher André Gedalge) came from a diversity of sources, as disparate as Basque dance and Malaysian poetry. Yet Ravel did not depart from traditional forms. The work conforms to a four-movement classical model, its outer movements Modéré and Animé bookending a scherzo (Pantoum / Assez vif) and slow movement (Passacaille / Très large).

In her descriptive sleeve note Icicle's violinist, Jennifer Caine, writes: 'Contrasting sections of exuberant frenzy and delicate stillness, balanced with sensitivity to the registers of the three instruments, give the music a broad scope and freedom.' But it's in these areas that ICPT's musicians frequently 'miss the boat.'

Two rivals in Ravel's sole Piano Trio positively 'knocked my socks off'. First pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Joshua Bell (violin) and Steven Isserlis (cello) on Decca (2007). These top musicians bring out Ravel's fascinating tonal nuances and textures with consummate ease.

On a par with them, an all American group, Trio Solisti, Jon Klibonoff, piano, Maria Bachmann, violin and Alexis Pia Gerlach, cello, appear on Endeavour Classics (2007). Solisti couple the Ravel with (wait for it!), Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Such ardent players tap into marvellous pellucid imaging and colors in Ravel's 1914 chamber work

The American North-west ensemble turns in a nicely shaped, well recorded Schubert trio though their Ravel sounds more akin to music of the high Cascades than a Basque-derived masterwork. Pity.

Listen -- Ravel: Animé (Piano Trio in A minor)
(track 4, 0:00-1:02) © 2008 Con Brio Recordings

Copyright © 11 January 2009 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand




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