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Stephen Francis Vasta
MusicWeb International, March 2007

The coupling is imaginative, with d'Indy's post-Wagnerian idiom nicely setting off Bruch's smaller-scaled, Brahmsian lyricism. But it's disconcerting to realize, after the fact, that Bruch's Eight Pieces, grounded in German tradition, appeared some twenty years later than the intrepid, "advanced"-sounding d'Indy Trio!

The Bruch set has turned up on disc from time to time, usually performed by relatively obscure ensembles; they've sounded agreeable, but small-scaled and inconsequential. But the members of the Toronto-based Amici Ensemble - clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas, cellist David Hetherington, and pianist Patricia Parr - consider the music afresh, finding in it a hitherto unsuspected scope for expression and nuance. At the start of the opening Andante, Parr's bleak voicing of the yearning gestures foreshadows Expressionism; a few bars later, the cello's aspiring theme points the way to Elgar! The playing is not flawless - Hetherington's pianos lack the sense of tonal reserve that his fortes imply, and he and Valdepeñas can't agree on tuning in their occasional unisons. But in the Amici's hands (and lungs), these pieces prove to be works of genuine musical substance, small-scaled or not.

As you might expect, it's the comparatively longer (five or six minutes), more elaborate pieces that stick in the memory. I was especially taken with the Andante con moto (No. 3), which alternates the cello's rhapsodic flourishes (think Liszt) with a soaring clarinet theme in sustained notes, sensitively colored by Valdepeñas. The Rümanische Melodie (No. 5) grows nicely impassioned; the concluding Moderato (No. 8), ruminative and lyrical, most nearly recalls the Brahms prototype. But there's also the brief Allegro agitato (No. 4), which maintains a headlong momentum even in its lyric episodes, and the Allegro vivace (No. 7), a nimble, toe-tapping scherzo.

As its gravely eloquent opening subject - a recurring motto, as it turns out - attests, the d'Indy Trio, cast in four full-fledged sonata form movements, is a completely different sort of piece. Its fluid writing, especially for the piano, is very "French." So, too, are the ambiguous chromatic sidesteps and unstable seventh chords of its harmonic language, and its unifying cyclic elements. Fortunately, the composer avoids the hothouse atmosphere that the idiom usually suggests, or evokes - even in its most expressive passages, the music always maintains a degree of poise.

The first movement (Overture: Modéré) runs some fourteen minutes - longer than any two of Bruch's pieces together! - yet the musical argument is cogent, the development of the themes expansive and logical. The second movement (Divertissement: Vif et animé), a scintillating scherzo decked out with piano runs (think Saint-Saëns), offers the cello, pizzicato, to reinforce the piano, a rare use in chamber music of a primarily orchestral effect. At the start of the succeeding Chant élégiaque, the clarinet intones a broad melody in pensive syncopations; the cello picks up the forward impulse, and the writing grows increasingly impassioned, leading to an ardent climax by cello and clarinet (in octaves rather than in unison, thus conveniently avoiding the previously cited tuning hazard). The Animé finale is buoyant, with the motto theme imaginatively repackaged on its return. Here, too, the Amici's performance is most persuasive.

The engineering is ideal for this sort of project - you don't notice it, yet everything sounds beautiful. There's plenty to enjoy here, and at minimal cost, besides.

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