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CD Review

Ensemble Capriccio

String Trios

Ensemble Capriccio
Chouhei Min, Violin
Korey Konkol, Viola
Mina Fisher, Cello
Produced by Steve Barnett, engineered by Russ Borud
Recorded in St. Paul, Minnesota, c. 1994
Titanic Ti-231 DDD 57:14
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Heitor Villa-Lôbos's career as a musician covered a lot of ground, both literally and figuratively. Born in Brazil, he first studied the cello. In his teens, he wandered far and wide, playing guitar in Rio dance bands and travelling across Brazil to hear the natives' music, before settling down to conservatory training. Eventually he went to Paris, where his work was admired by Varèse and Messiaen, but Brazil was never far from his heart or from his compositions. In the later works, especially this Trio, the influences of the early days are very much present, but they are worked so subtly and deeply into a highly sophisticated and formal style that it would be impossible to say exactly where they were, or to separate them from the more academic threads.

Written in 1945, the Trio begins with a fugal passage which leads seamlessly to lively dance rhythms. The cello and viola take the melody in many passages, while the violin plays backing in the higher part of its range. In the second movement, Andante, the violin has a vocalise above a dark ostinato pulse; then the strings switch roles and the violin provides a delicate arpeggio accompaniment high above a sweet melody in the viola. This slow movement is purposeful, gentle, but light-hearted and not serious.

The third movement brings the three voices together in contrapuntal textures, and the piece closes with an Allegro "preciso e agitato" which is brisk, busy, and serious, modern but without harsh dissonances. If you are not familiar with the chamber music of Villa-Lôbos, this is an excellent place to start.

Villa-Lôbos's Trio has also been recorded by the Gasteig Trio of Munich, on a Thorofon CD from 1992. That recording has a clearer, brighter sound, and the performances tend more to extremes of tempo and mood, where this Ensemble is generally more moderate and conservative.

The Haydn trio is, according to the liner notes, an 1816 transcription of a piano sonata written in 1784. (The back cover text says E minor and 1789, which are clearly wrong.) This version cannot be traced to Haydn, but the music works very well in this string arrangement, and it may be that Haydn originally wrote it for strings and rearranged it for piano. In two fast movements, the piece is charming and upbeat, and is played here with appropriate energy and verve.

Stephen Paulus was born in Minnesota in 1949. His music appears on about eight CDs in the current U.S. catalog, including songs and two symphonies, but his most famous work is probably the second of his five operas, "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

The Seven Miniatures were commissioned and premièred by the present Ensemble and they are a varied collection of moods and influences. The movements are titled: Prélude, Air, Caprice, Berceuse, Bergomask, Lament, and Toccata, reminiscent of a baroque suite. Each of the seven movements highlights a different set of sonorities and instrumental techniques. The third movement, for instance, is entirely pizzicato. Many things about this music seem familiar, but not easy to place. I heard a bit of Shostakovich here, the Beatles there. There are no direct quotes, but rather suggestions of specific moments from pop or classical music.

Ensemble Capriccio clearly loves this music and conveys their enjoyment of it nicely.

The recording is adequate, a little dull perhaps, but clear. There is no "air" around the performers, no sense of the space they are in, so this disc does not qualify as audiophile quality.

Overall, this is a valuable, commendable release which offers three unusual and entertaining works in lively, spirited performances.

Copyright © 1997, Paul Geffen