The first thing to say about this splendid new CD from MDG is that the sound quality is quite simply stunning. My usual prerequisite for any recording is to feel that I am in the same room as the performers. This present disc makes me think I am sitting amongst the trio. Every detail, every nuance, of these three intricate works is crystal clear. That is before I consider the stunning playing by the Ensemble Blumina.

The earliest work here, and possibly the inspiration for subsequent adventures with this musical combination, is Francis Poulenc’s Trio pour hautbois, basson et piano, Op.43 which was composed as far back as 1926, some three years before Previn was born. Poulenc is a composer who I have always found to be very satisfying. He is able to synthesise various stylistic parameters without ever giving the impression that he is writing parody or pastiche. His is a very urbane fusion of neo-classicism, neo-baroque and sometimes a hint of something more exotic. Stravinsky and Debussy inhabit some of this music. Poulenc also has a sense of humour and fun, which is never long-absent from his music. Haydn and Mozart are not too far away from this trio. However, it has been suggested that the final movement nods to Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto. The Trio is in three well-balanced movements with a gorgeous slow movement, showing just how sensitive the bassoon can be. The concluding rondo is a ‘tour de force’, full of humour and tongue-in-cheek, jolly little phrases. It provides a satisfying conclusion to a well-wrought and tightly controlled work that displays the composer’s innate sympathy in writing for wind instruments.

My only ‘war story’ about André Previn concerns a record shop that used to exist just opposite Charing Cross Station on The Strand. I was engrossed in the browsers working my way slowly from right to left, and, working his way from left to right…was the Maestro. We bumped into each other, I apologised; he apologised and smiled. He knew that I knew who he was.

I have never really come across any of his compositions - apart from a handful of piano pieces. I know that he is a composer of considerable stature, diversity and quantity. The Arkiv catalogue currently lists some 49 CDs featuring Previn’s music, some of it from his film scores and ‘jazz songs’ but also including a fair few orchestral works like his piano and violin concertos. If I had ‘nine lives’ these would be areas slated for exploration. Interestingly, there are three other versions of the present Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon. I cannot claim to have heard any of them for comparison purposes.

Previn’s Trio was composed during 1995 and was premiered in New York on 31 January 1996. This work is a clever synthesis of styles. Poulenc may be the exemplar, but jazz and even moments of ‘pop’ are skilfully blended into the texture. The ‘spikiness’ of Stravinsky is another influence. ‘Elegance’ would seem to be the watch-word in the first movement: for anyone who thinks that a bassoon must always play the part of a clown, Previn shows that it can also take the role of philosopher and lover. The slow movement is particularly haunting with its languorous melodies played by oboe and bassoon. The composer lets his hair down in the finale - jazz phrases and ‘breaks’ are the order of the day, always piquant, and rhythmically free but definitely establishing the work in a long line of ‘American’ works from Gershwin to Copland and beyond. This is sophisticated music that is entertaining as well as just occasionally challenging.

The third work on this fascinating CD is the French composer Jean Françaix’s Trio pour hautbois, basson et piano, dating from 1994. The liner-notes point out that Françaix was heavily influenced by Ravel and Poulenc in the sound-world and formal construction of his music. He was also inclined to make use of forms and figurations derived from older music. The present Trio is composed in four classically inspired movements including a scherzo which is placed second and is followed an attractive andante. The scherzo is a delight: playful cheeky and totally irrepressible, it should be heard so much more often. In contrast, the ‘andante’ is rather melancholy: it is a beautiful utterance that possibly reflects the ‘late’ position of this work in the composer’s canon - he was to die three years later. All is swept aside in the lively, jaunty finale. This is vintage Françaix that looks back to one of his undoubted masterpieces, L'horloge de flore (1959), for oboe and orchestra.

It is interesting to consider that Jean Françaix’s Trio was composed nearly seventy years after the Poulenc. There is no way that it can be described as a copy, yet when one considers how much musical water had flown under the bridge in this time, it is a surely a tribute to Poulenc’s enduring musical language.

The liner-notes are excellent with as much information as one could wish for. My only complaint about this disc is that I feel a little short-changed - 51 minutes duration does seem skimpy. Could they not have found another suitable piece, to make up the minutes? I do understand that the instrumentation is not the most popular amongst composers, but there must have been another piece somewhere in the repertoire - something by Handel or Telemann?

I noted above the excellent sound reproduction on this CD. This is complemented by superb playing by Ensemble Blumina. This is a recording to treasure.

John France (MusicWeb International)

Andre Previn:

Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano

Jean Francaix:

Trio pour hautbois, basson et piano

Francis Poulenc:

Trio pour hautbois, basson et piano

2013, Musikproduktion Dabringhaus & Grimm
MDG 903 1827-6
SACD 2+2+2 Recording

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