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Chamber Music Media Review Print

A Pair of Stunningly Played CDs Featuring Now Neglected Works by Formerly Well-Loved (Mostly) 20th Century American Composers

August 9, 2021 - Easthampton, MA:

New England Trios, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), Trio for Violin, ’Cello, and Piano (1937), Ronald Perera (b. 1941), Trio for Violin, ’Cello, and Piano (2002), Walter Piston (1894-1976), Trio(s) for Violin, ’Cello, and Piano, No.1 (1935), & No. 2 (1966); The Elm Chamber Ensemble: Joel Pitchon, violin, Marie-Volcy Pelletier, ’cello, Yu-Mei Wei, piano; Bridge Records, 9530, © 2020, TT 66:38, $16.99 via Amazon.

Transformations, Leon Kirchner (1919-2009), Duo No. 2 for Violin and Piano (2002), Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment, Op.47 (1949), Roger Sessions (1896-1985), Duo for Violin and ’Cello (1978), Solo Sonata (1953); Elizabeth Chang, violin, Stephen Beck, piano, Alberto Parrini, ’cello; Albany Records, Troy 1850, © 2021, TT 62:54, $16.99 via Amazon.

(Listings [except for the CDs themselves, by publication/© dates] are in alphabetical, not chronological or performance order; the composers and the musicians all have impressive pedigrees, even if their names are not familiar to you. The notes in their accompanying booklets carefully detail all the works themselves, their composition and their contents, as well as the musicians’ bios.)

The first CD's title comes from the New England connection of the composers – all three studied at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, and Piston taught there for 34 years. Their music is eclectic, and none is a disciple of another, although Bernstein studied under Piston. The music featured here maintains traditional tonality and is very accessible. Piston is said to have a “conservative modernist style;” he said Bernstein knew everything “by instinct.” Piston's 1935 trio was his first published work; Perera’s 2002 trio was written just before he retired from many years of teaching at Smith College in Northampton, MA. The trio was written for and dedicated to violinist Joel Pitchon of the Elm Chamber Ensemble. Perera provided the notes for his composition on this album, which is a première recording, and Pitchon contributed the other program notes.

The Harvard connection continues with Transformations, because Kirchner taught there (Chang was a student of his), and the teacher-student relationship is tightly woven among the three composers as well. Kirchner was a student of both Sessions and Schoenberg.Sessions grew up in Hadley, MA, across the Connecticut River from Northampton; he also taught at Smith in the early years of his career, where his son taught ’cello for many years later. Both composers were “pioneers in seeking a new compositional language in the post-tonal world while being deeply rooted in the Germanic tradition” (Chang’s intro, p. 2 of the booklet). Amherst professor David E Schneider wrote fine and thorough program notes that contrast the featured composers with statements such as “Kirchner never turned to compositional systems such as serialism” (p. 3).

This music is very individualistic and varied, often with rapid mood changes. Repeated motives and patterns are less easy on the ears considering the World War era of the music's composition, as the two wars affected and disrupted the lives of most of the composers. Despite this, the musis is strikingly beautiful, and not exceedingly or unduly grating or unpleasant. Sessions’ fiendishly challenging (for the violinist) solo sonata adopts Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method; his own notes for it are included in the booklet (pp. 6-7). Sessions' Duo was written for his son John and his violinist wife Giovina (who premièred it), and their daughter Teresa. Sessions and Kirchner were both 82 years of age when writing the duos featured on this album; it was Sessions’ last composition in his life. Schoenberg’s Phantasy, which closes the program, was also his final work. The performances are all outstanding.

It’s rare to have recordings of music for the same instruments featuring performers who reside and work so closely to each other released around the same time. It’s also unusual that they should complement each other so well in style, with programs so well-built and structured: nothing is haphazard. Since I know nearly all of them personally (Parrini is the sole exception), I’m quite certain that this coordination was not plotted. Significant as they all are, only Bernstein’s work appears to be available currently on another recording.