Tuesday 2 August 2022

Finely poetic: Ernest Chausson's early Piano Trio alongside works by his contemporary, Eugene Ysaÿe

Chausson: Piano Trio, Ysaye: Poeme Elegiaque, Meditation-Poeme; Bruno Monteiro, Miguel Rocha, João Paulo Santos; Etcetera Records
Chausson: Piano Trio, Ysaÿe: Poeme ElegiaqueMeditation-Poeme; Bruno Monteiro, Miguel Rocha, João Paulo Santos; Etcetera Records
Reviewed 29 July 2022 (★★★½)

Chausson's early trio paired with two works by his contemporary Ysaye in finely poetic accounts from three Portuguese musicians

On this disc from three Portuguese musicians, violinist Bruno Monteiro, cellist Miguel Rocha and pianist João Paulo Santos, on Etcetera Records, they pair Ernest Chausson's Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op. 3 with two works by Eugene Ysaÿe, Poeme Elegiaque for Violin and Piano and Meditation-Poeme for Cello and Piano.

There was little in Ernest Chausson's comfortable early life that would indicate music as a career, however he was gifted at the piano and (ultimately) resisted his father's disapproval and went to the Paris Conservatoire. There he studied with Massenet and with Franck, but it would be Franck who had the major influence on the young man. However, Chausson's larger-scale works are also imbued the influence of Wagner. Having failed to win the Prix de Rome in 1881, Chausson travelled to Bayreuth to hear Wagner's Parsifal, and his Trio was written around this time. 

It is the first of his chamber works (which include the Concert for piano, violin and string quartet, Piano Quartet, Andante and Allegro for clarinet & piano), all substantial pieces where Franck's influence can be felt. And whilst his contemporaries were all leaning towards opera, this work showed Chausson's bent for large-scale chamber form and the trio shows an impressive command of architecture to that it is far more than a romantic, lyrical outpouring. It was premiered in 1882, but not a single critic came to the performance; however, like Chausson's other chamber music, it has become more well known since the mid-20th century.

Eugene Ysaÿe was known as much for his violin playing as for his composition. His best known pieces are the Six Sonatas for Solo violin. Ysaÿe's Poeme Elegiaque was dedicated to Faure, but on hearing it Chausson was so impressed that he wrote his Poeme for Ysaye. In fact, Ysaÿe had requested a concerto, but Chausson did not feel up to the challenge of that. Ysaÿe's Mediation-Poeme is a rather later work, written in 1910 and not published until 1921.

Chausson's Trio uses a cyclical theme in the manner of his friend and teacher, Franck. This is introduced over a rocking piano figure at the outset of the first movement. This movement is substantial (over ten minutes) yet begins in a remarkably elegiac manner before becoming faster and more turbulent. As with much later 19th century writing for piano trio, the work requires sensitive handling in the piano and this Santos does very well. Throughout there is the sense of give and take between the three and the piano never feels over done. It helps that both Monteiro and Rocha are well able to bring out their own passionate moments in a fine manner, yet each can be discreet too. This is a performance that moves between quiet sympathy and intense passion. The slow movement has a lovely transparency to the opening, with an introduction that feels quite thoughtful before we launch into the perky main section. Here the wry humour and poetic elements take us a little distance from Franck. For the opening of the slow movement, the piano has a long solo, reiterating the cyclical theme and as the other instruments join in there is a quietly intense poeticism that reminds you of Faure, even though the structure is more Franck. An example of the synthesis that Chausson brought to his music. With the finale, we bring the cyclical structure to a close with a large-scale movement that has a perky energy to its rhythmic impetus. 

Throughout the performance, I enjoyed the sympathetic give and take between the players and the sense of poetry that they bring to the music. Though a large-scale romantic work, the fevered moments are kept under control and we can enjoy the poetry that we find in Chausson's smaller works.

Ysaÿe's Poeme Elegiaque is another large-scale piece, a single movement lasting nearly 15 minutes. Ysaÿe was inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and musically by Wagner, but also by Chausson, Franck and Faure. The work does very much live in a similar world to the Chausson. The violin's G string is tuned down to F, giving a slightly huskier, darker sound to the piece. We have a flowing, poetic violin over a throbbing piano. This is very much free rhapsody, and whilst Santos' piano is wonderfully sensitive, the focus is on Monteiro's violin. There are moments when the piece seems to almost break its bounds, as if Ysaÿe really wanted to write a work for violin and orchestra. 

Ysaÿe's sense of free rhapsody also comes across in his Mediation-Poeme, and here he emphasises things by showing the changes of metre via a single number written above the score rather than conventional time signatures. It begins in haunting and darkly poetic style, a real poetic meditation. And even when things hot up, Rocha and Santos keep that sense of free rhapsody alongside poetic meditation.

If I have a criticism of this disc, it is that the piano sound is not always capture sympathetically, though Santos is always a fine pianist. But I enjoyed this disc immensely, the three instrumentalists all conquer the challenges of the instrumental writing without even making a meal of it. Throughout, the three remain sensitive to the poetry of the pieces, and the trio in particular has a lovely intimate give and take between the three players.

Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) - Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in G minor Op.3
Eugene Ysaÿe (1858-1931) - Poème Élégiaque for Violin and Piano Op.12
Eugene Ysaÿe - Meditation-Poème for Cello and Piano Op.16
Bruno Monteiro (violin)
Miguel Rocha (cello)
João Paulo Santos (piano)
Recorded 21-22 September 2021, Igreja da Cartuxa, Caxias, Portugal

Available from Etcetera Records.

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