Black Oak Ensemble ~ Avant l’orage: French String Trios, 1926-1939

We don’t tend to focus much on historical music here on ACL, but this album is a timely treat. Aside from the fact that the centenary of many of these pieces is coming up, many of us have been aware of parallels between the 1920s and ’30s and today. There was massive technological change, political radicalism and instability, wars, famines, and—last but not least—a global pandemic. It’s a turbulent era, so complex that it’s hard to sum up: perhaps it suffices to mention that the French call it the Années folles (“the crazy years”). This album is a welcome opportunity to travel back to a distant yet curiously close time.

First, a very concise introduction to the string trio. Typically made up of a violin, viola and ‘cello, the string trio was supremely expressive whilst also reasonably accessible in the West: in the days before the mass-market upright piano, strings were amongst the most accessible instruments, which meant you could play it in the home with family or in a salon with friends. By the 1920s it was a well-established form, familiar to concert-going audiences if less exciting than the revolutionary new genre jazz.

This double-disc of works plunges in with a dramatic opening movement of a trio from Henri Tomasi in which the three players exchange an invigorating, furious da-da-da-daa motif. Almost as if to highlight the contrasts of the album, the opening of the second movement is tentative and unsettled, the ‘cello playing a chromatically inflected bassline before being joined by a viola melody aching with doomed hope. Another wild contrast follow: the composer titled the third movement “Scherzo” (a joke) but the way the Black Oak Ensemble plays the opening is nothing short of manic, veering on madness until the middle when the mania subsides, lost to melancholy. The trio ends with a piece that wraps an ear-worm of a beautiful Provencal folk melody within a structure full of tension.

The complete album features trios from seven male composers from a variety of backgrounds: Tomasi was the son of a postal worker, one was a naval commander in the First World War, one trained as a scientist, others were born into families of professional musicians. It would be too much to discuss them all; suffice to say the album is rich with interest and full of contrast. Among the highlights are the Lent and the Anime by Jean Cras, the Andante by Jean Françaix, the Divertissement by Gustave Samazeuilh, and Les trio clercqs de Sainct-Nicholas by Gabriel Pierné that closes out the collection.  (Garreth Brooke)

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