French Piano Trios, Vol. 1
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French Piano Trios
Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)
Piano Trio in G major
Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)
Piano Trio in A minor
Florent Schmitt (1870 - 1958)
The names of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel have often been coupled, classified together, in spite of the marked difference in their characters and in their musical styles and of a later coolness that sprang up between them, fomented by critics who insisted on comparisons in one way or another invidious. The older of the two, Debussy, was born in 1862, the son of a shop-keeper. In 1872 he entered the Conservatoire, where he eventually abandoned the plan, supported by his generally shiftless father, of becoming a concert pianist, turning his attention to composition. In 1884 he won the Prix de Rome and the following year took up obligatory residence at the Villa Medici in Rome, in accordance with the terms of the prize. By 1887 he was back in Paris, winning his first significant success in 1900 with Nocturnes and going on, two years later, to a succes de scandale with his Maeterlinck opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the importance of which was soon widely acknowledged.
Debussy's personal life brought some unhappiness in his first marriage, in 1899, to a mannequin, Lily Texier, after an association of some six years with Gabrielle Dupont. From 1903 he enjoyed a relationship with Emma Bardac, amateur singer and wife of a banker, whom he eventually married in 1908. His final years were darkened by the war and by the cancer that brought about his death in 1918.
In 1879 Tchaikovsky's benefactress, the Russian railway widow Nadezhda von Meck, wrote to the Paris Conservatoire, asking for a student from the piano class to serve as a holiday tutor to her daughters. In July 1880 Debussy joined the von Mecks in Switzerland, accompanying them to France and then to the Villa Oppenheim in Florence, where he remained until his necessary return to the Conservatoire at the end of October. The following summer he returned to the family in Moscow and in the summer of 1882 he was again with the von Mecks in Russia, travelling with them to Vienna. The relationship came to an end with Debussy's attempt to secure marriage with one of the von Meck daughters, his pupils. The Premier Trio en Sol, which had no successor, was written for Nadezhda von Meck's house-musicians, the violinist Vladislav Pachulski, who later married her daughter Julia, and the cellist Pyotr Danilchenko, with her typically Parisian and plebeian 'Bussy', in whose work she detected an understandable allegiance to Massenet, as pianist. The Trio was later dedicated to Debussy's teacher Emile Durand, with the words: Beaucoup de notes accompagnées de beau coup d'amitié, offert par l'auteur a son professeur Monsieur Emile Durand.
Debussy's Trio is an attractive work, to some extent derivative, as might be expected. It opens with a movement that is developed from the opening piano figure, itself based on the descending scale. The theme is taken up by the violin, before the cello is allowed its own melancholy version of the material. Fellow students of Debussy in Durand's class remarked on his originality in the treatment of relatively trite material and his ability to find a novel solution for harmonic problems. The first movement of the Trio leads to secondary thematic material in F major and a section marked Allegro appassionato, before the eventual return of the principal theme in its original key. The B minor Scherzo opens with the plucked notes of violin and cello, before the piano launches into the theme, contrasted with a B major Un poco più lento introduced by the cello. The piano briefly moves towards the original key for the slow movement, with its expressive cello melody and harmonic and dynamic contrast, with a brief excursion into G flat major and ensuing enharmonic changes, before the violin brings back the principal theme and key. The Appassionato last movement brings continued harmonic exploration, before the final establishment of G major in the last six bars.
Maurice Ravel came from a very different background, of Swiss ancestry through his father and, through his mother, Basque. From the former, an engineer by profession, he inherited an admiration for precision, and from the latter a predilection for things Spanish. Nevertheless he remained essentially French in his musical language and in his ability to reflect certain aspects of the spirit of his age and native country. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where his continued failure to win the Prix de Rome brought about a scandal that resulted in the resignation of the director of the institution and his replacement by Ravel's teacher Gabriel Fauré. The war, in which he served as a transport driver, and the death of his mother affected his spirits, but by 1920 he had begun to recover. By the end of the decade, however, there were signs of the illness that was to bring about his death in 1937, after years of increasing incapacity.
Ravel's Piano Trio was completed in 1914, as war broke out, and first performed the following year. The composer, although he was on other occasions scathing about Saint-Saëns, acknowledged a possible debt to the latter's use of the form. The work was dedicated to André Gédalge, professor of fugue and counterpoint at the Conservatoire. The first movement allows the piano to propose the characteristic rhythm of the principal theme, followed by the violin and cello in widely spaced octaves, a sonority that was an essential part of Ravel's chamber music idiom, as it was of his teacher Fauré's. To this a gentler theme succeeds, soon to be replaced by the insistent Basque rhythm of the first, a figure that echoes in the distance, as the music dies away. The second movement bears the curious title Pantoum, a reference to a Malay poetic form introduced into French by Ernest Fouinet and used by Victor Hugo in his Orientales. This form involves the use of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of one stanza form the first and third lines of the next, with the first line of the first stanza repeated at the end of the last. Ravel imposes this oriental verse form on a movement that is in essence a scherzo and trio. The third movement is a Passacaille, its eight-bar opening serving as the basis for nine following variations, a development of the Baroque variation form, swelling in texture before returning to its original simplicity. The Final makes principal use of a modification of the main theme of the first movement, announced gently by the piano through a delicate haze of string sound. Ravel continues to offer original solutions to the problems inherent in the form of combining the percussive keyboard instrument with the sustaining power of string instruments, blending the two disparate elements in a musical language that is unmistakably his own.
Like Ravel, Florent Scmitt was a counterpoint pupil of Gedalge at the Conservatoire, studying composition with Massenet and later with Fauré. He enjoyed a distinguished career, succeeding to the chair of Dukas at the Institut in 1936. Schmitt's musical language is in general very different from that of Ravel, directly derived in some aspects from Cesar Franck. He was associated with Ravel in the group of young artists known as the Apaches. His Très lent, one of a number of such short pieces with this scoring, makes a pleasing foil to the work of his now better known contemporaries.
After an appearance as soloist with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the 1992 Cheltenham F