The End of Flowers: Clarke & Ravel Piano Trios

Gryphon Trio (Analekta)

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Clarke • Ravel Piano Trios
Gryphon Trio
Analekta AN 2 9520 49:22 mins

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While Rebecca Clarke is still largely identified with her Viola Sonata – once assumed notoriously to be the work of a man by a competition jury – her Piano Trio is more than its equal. It was entered into the same Berkshire Festival of Music competition in the US two years later, and again missed top prize. But the result was a commission from patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge herself.

Its substantial first movement suggests a new and more daring direction in her art, sadly never developed in later works. Opening with a volley of repeated notes, the Moderato is riven with militaristic sound imagery, from menacing alarms to the haunting reveille figure which becomes a pastoral second theme; there’s a masterly complexity and coherence to this movement. An elegiac Andante treads a Clarkian line between sensuousness and melancholy, typically focused on the violin’s darkest colours. Puckish wit lights up a French-inflected Allegro, but its skittishness lacks spontaneity, and even the committed Gryphon Trio can’t cover all the cracks.

Their pairing with almost-contemporary Ravel’s Piano Trio (1914) makes perfect sense: Clarke not only admired and absorbed Ravel’s style but performed with him. This spectacular work requires a balance of crystalline perfection and fiery flamboyance. I love the light touch the Gryphon Trio brings to the Moderato, the cello boasting viola-like nimbleness, and the players slip subtly in and out of its pools of stillness. Perhaps their suave ‘Pantoum’ isn’t as precise and fleet as some, but this absorbing ‘Passacaille’ achieves true grandeur and the finale, ecstasy.

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Helen Wallace