Classical Music Review: New Releases

Eaken Piano Trio - Trios by Schifrin, Schuller and Shapiro.  Lalo Schifrin: Hommage à Ravel; Gunther Schuller: Piano Trio; Gerald M. Shapiro: Piano Trio.  Eaken Piano Trio (John Eaken, violin; Nancy Baun, cello; Gloria Whitney, piano).  Naxos American Classics 8.559062 (66'58).

One of the most fruitful influences on American music of the past half-century as been the juxtaposition of French art music, especially the work of Ravel and Milhaud, with the rhythms and harmonies of jazz.  The three trios performed here demonstrate the variety possible within this duel influence.

Lalo Schifrin (b. 1932) organized Argentina's first jazz orchestra and arranged Gillespiana (1958) for Dizzy Gillespie's big band.  He subsequently settled in Hollywood where he produced numerous scores for film and television (he is also responsible for the "Three Tenors'" arrangements for which -- to my mind, at least -- this trio serves as something like amends).  His trio, Hommage à Ravel (1995), is a masterful pastiche of "jazz, Middle Eastern scales, [and] African and South American rhythms and dances," to quote John Eaken's intelligent liner notes.  For Schifrin, these are exactly the types of things that would have influenced the French composer were he alive today.  The first movement immediately serves notice that the trio is looking beyond Europe for its inspiration.  Grounded in Middle Eastern tonality, the extended opening theme is traded off between the two bowed instruments and the piano.  While the straightforward rhythm of the theme seems to lend itself to counterpuntal exploration, Schifrin confounds expectations by using it to center a movement in traditional sonata form.  The second movement is a rollicking tango, while the third is an elegy inspired by a visit to Ravel's grave.  The finale opens with a rapid series of arpeggiated chords on the piano over which the violin and cello play a series of motifs.  The restlessness of the movement concludes with jazzy cadenzas for each of the three instruments.  It's a remarkable achievement.

Where Schifrin melds world music with jazz in his Hommage à Ravel, Gunther Schuller (b. 1925) in his Piano Trio (1984) combines jazzy rhythms and an improvisational feeling with European serialism.  The first movement announces its seriousness with a dense, abstract opening.  A second, more lyrical second subject alternates with it and the interplay between these two themes (both based on a 12-tone row) form the basis of the movement's structure.  The tranquil and mournful sounding Adagio dominated by a lovely duet between the violin and cello anchored by blocked chords on the piano.  The last movement, marked "With Swing", features serialist outbursts alternating with syncopated melodies and a walking bass.  The whole work is an example of Schuller's synthesis of jazz and modern classical music.

I had not heard of Gerald M. Shapiro (b. 1942) prior to this release (he is the chair of the Department of Music at Brown University), but his Piano Trio (1992) not only holds its own with the other two works on the disk, in some ways it surpasses them.  Less ambitious, perhaps, than the other pieces on the disk, it also feels more cohesive.  Shapiro cites the influence of Brahms on the trio's opening movement, but one can also detect the presence of such composers as Honegger and, in the Scherzando à la Russe, Shostakovich and Prokofiev.  The third-movement adagio is built around a theme apparently written by the composer's seven-year-old daughter (just as it is impossible for an adult to reproduce the simplicity of a child's drawing, perhaps it is also impossible to duplicate the innocence of their musical offerings).  At any rate, the music is the most affecting thing on the disk.  The trio concludes with a swirling, minimalist dance that surrounds a melody that recalls the Adagio's theme.

This is one of the best programmed disks I've ever heard.  The works work well together, each piece bringing out the individuality of the others.  The influence of jazz pervades the works but never overwhelms them.  Mention must be made of the Eaken Piano Trio which shows itself capable of handling the diverse challenges of these pieces.  They have previously recorded two collections of Christmas music on Naxos (8.554099 & 8.554714), I can't wait for their next foray into meatier fare.

Tony Gualtieri
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