Saturday, April 29, 2017

AdAstra Piano Trio Makes a Nonstandard Recording Debut

A little over a week ago the Polish label CD ACCORD released the recording debut of the AdAstra Piano Trio. Also based in Poland, the group consists of violinist Anna Szabelka, cellist Łukasz Frant, and pianist Joanna Galon-Frant. The title of the album is Episodi, which is taken from the first selection, “Episodi e Canto perpetuo” (episodes and perpetual song) by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks. In fact the entire album is devoted to American and Eastern European compositions written during the last century.

At the very least this is a refreshing change from piano trios that feel determined to establish their chops through familiar nineteenth-century repertoire, daring to cross over into the next century only for the likes of Maurice Ravel or possibly Dmitri Shostakovich. The American composers on the album are Henry Cowell (his 1965 “Trio in Nine Short Movements”) and Paul Schoenfield (his 1985 thoroughly loopy three-movement “Café Music”). The other Eastern European is the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, represented by a 1997 piece that Grove Music Online translates from the Russian as “3 Merry Pieces,” which is apparently based on much earlier pieces composed for solo piano.

Curiously, this is not the first piano trio album to draw its title from Vasks. In 2012 the Boulanger Trio also used it as an opening album selection, following it with the two Shostakovich piano trios, providing a rare opportunity to listen to the seldom recorded Opus 8 trio in C minor. Similarly, AdAstra has prepared a program of rarely heard pieces. However, here in San Francisco there is one notable exception: “Café Music” has received a generous amount of exposure, particularly by the Aleron Trio before they disbanded. It was written on a commission by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, supposedly inspired by Schoenfield’s days as a house pianist at Murphy’s steakhouse in Minneapolis. However, when I have written about this piece in the past, I have described it as “more suited to the Mos Eisley Cantina, possibly hosting a guest band of Muppets.”

Unfortunately, Schoenfield’s over-the-top sense of humor has not translated well to this recording. In fairness, however, it may be the case that it does not translate well to any recording. The very sight of three highly disciplined performers deftly jumping through all the hoops set up by Schoenfield’s score is as much a part of the fun as is the music itself. When it comes to comedy in music, the Shchedrin selection fares much better on recording, particularly the second of the three pieces, whose title in English translates into “Let’s Play and Opera by Rossini.” Structured as a coloratura aria with an introductory recitative, the piece indulges shamelessly in Rossini quotes and packs no end of low-comedy gags into a little more than two minutes. For this listener, at least, Shchedrin having fun with Rossini is a lot more satisfying than the fun he had with Georges Bizet when he prepared a score for a ballet about Carmen choreographed by his wife Maya Plisetskaya.

The more serious selections by Cowell and Vasks lead the listener into more exploratory domains. Both composers were interested in the technical potential of all three of the instruments in both solo and ensemble capacities. Furthermore, each of the two compositions amounts to a series of relatively brief studies. One might regard them both as sets of études; but these are “studies” directed at the ears of the attentive listener, as well as at the technical skills of the performers. From this point of view, the opportunity to revisit the Vasks composition turned out to be a very welcome one, while my reaction to the Cowell pieces simply involved wondering why I had to wait so long to listen to them for the first time.

How long will we have to wait before AdAstra makes their first tour of the United States?

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