Bulb: Irish Piano Trios

Fidelio Piano Trio (NMC D147)

5 May 2008 4 stars

BulbThe Fidelio Trio's new music star has been in the ascendant in the past few years, and this confident disc of contemporary Irish piano trios exhibits well the power of musical insight and the assuredly interesting programming that have helped occasion that rise.

The works collected here are from mostly young but generally well-established composers, with Kevin Volans perhaps standing apart from the other three (Donnacha Dennehy, Deirdre Gribbin, Ed Bennett) in terms of seniority, though not in terms of style. In each of the works on the disc it is possible to detect a common line of shared influence that runs from Feldman and the New York minimalists, through popular electronic music, and on into spectral music. This music is nothing if not symptomatic of its time. One can also detect an interesting tension in much of the music between figurative narrative styles on the one hand, and motoric, pattern-based processes on the other that could equally be said to represent an important musical paradigm of our time. The music is thus Irish only in name and circumstance; its very worldliness is what ensures its canonical new musicality, and stakes out for it the widest possible context.

Dennehy's trio, Bulb, for which the disc is named, was written for the ensemble (like the Bennet and the Gribbin pieces), and it resides firmly in the players' preferred idiom. The work, a deeply felt and relentless exercise of simultaneous spectral string microtones and minimal pianistic forward-momentum, frames the content of the disc (it is also placed first), and it works well as an effective opening statement of intent. Like much of Dennehy's other recent work (for example his Grá agus Bás), Bulb displays the compositional confidence and maturity of an artist in command of their voice. He has in this new work managed to satisfactorily balance and mediate between the static and the teleological implications of minimal rhythmic (the piece vacillates between linear and vertical clashes of duple, triple and prime number rhythms) and material processes. He also succeeds in imbuing the abstract aspects of his pattern-based writing with a directness of expression that owes a debt of inspiration to the yearning glissandi of Gloria Coates' music. Dennehy's style in this piece is an invigorated spectral-minimal hybrid that owes something also perhaps to the freeform but ostinato-based improvisations of Krautrock and psychedelic groups like Ghost, Can, and Faust. The forward thrust and fervour of the piece certainly shares more with the latter styles than it does with the more sedate minimalism that has been finding favour in film and television soundtracks of late. The Fidelio Trio gives a powerful and committed performance of the work. They manage to sustain the energy right up until the final page, where it slides into cessation quite arrestingly. Both string players quite clearly appreciate the emotional scope of their music, and they sound their always-creeping microtonal lines with a definite sense of purpose, and accuracy. Mary Dullea, the pianist, completes the difficult and relentless task set her with an absolute mastery of execution, and of effect.

The performers are equally impressive in the other works on the disc. Deirdre Gribbin's How to Make the Water Sound is an evanescent and thrilling work, which evokes the different sounds and energies of water by moving through various stylistic reminiscences. These are: the stillness of Feldman, the perfumed chromaticism of Takemitsu(as suggested by the title), the silences of Nono, the pictorialism and formal logic of someone like Brett Dean (her piece is paced and integrated well), and in the final sections a viol-like string warmth and chant-like purity. This work is that rare thing; music that evokes a program, without once appealing to any conventional signifiers of musical pictorialism. There are no pastoral horn calls or overt quotations. There is rather a well thought out program of sounds that convey, paradoxically, the very abstractness of the water they contemplate and seek to echo. The trio of performers communicate quite compellingly the many ebbs and flows of the work, with Dullea again showing insight and command in her performance of the score's undulating, delicate, and colourful piano part.

Ed Bennett's trio For Marcel Dzama is the only work on the disc to include electronics (a fourth musician triggers pre-recorded samples off stage). Considering how far from conventional piano trio writing each of the works actually are though, it is not too great an aesthetic or indeed aural leap to Bennett's modified trio. The electronic sounds (which range from modified abstract sounds to more recognisably instrumental based tones at the end) are used in a sort of stretto style whereby they first answer the instruments, then gradually move on top of the instrumental layering, to finally engulf the sound. The dialectic that we might read into the score between live and electronic sounds is not quite so clear cut though; the instrumental lines are as objective and as motor-driven as much as they are expressionistically Bartokian (the work revolves around a heavily chromaticised G tonic). The piece thus does derive much of its energy from the tension it explores between abstract process and felt sounds, it is just that these effects cannot easily be ascribed to the expected origins of the electronic (for abstract effects) and the human realms of production. The performers project well a sort of expressionist minimalism in their interpretation, even if at times they cannot overcome the perfunctory feel of some of the writing. The piece works as a sort of anxious depiction of a compromised and repetitious tonality, but one can't help feeling that it lacks originality, and perhaps conviction. It is far from a failure though; the electronic track displays a fine ear for timbre, and the overall pacing, in this performance at least, feels well judged.

The dialectical nature of much of the music on the disc is clearest in Kevin Volans' Piano Trio, where an explicit conversation takes place between the very different energies of Feldman-derived repetition and stillness on the one hand, and a more lyrical and figurative attempt at 'storytelling' (as Volans puts it himself in the liner notes) on the other.  This is a gruelling work for the performers, who must both instil accuracy and contrast into the incessant repetitions, and also convincingly integrate the contrastive episodes of lyrical string writing with piano accompaniment with those repetitious tendencies. The Fidelios make a valiant attempt. They generally succeed in making a virtue of the banality of the repetitions, shining especially in the very unFeldman-like ardour of the second of the two movements, whilst always choreographing the move into late-romantic lyricism quite skilfully. If at times one feels a little weak and confused by the incessant outpouring of the music, then the performers could not be said to be at fault. Volans offers an uncompromising and ultimately masterful display of the dynamic power of repetition; the lyrical episodes appear quite logically out of the flow, and provide an important emotional contrast to the tumults of the first movement, where they are largely concentrated. The performers sustain their authority and insight right to the end of the work, and bring a sprightly energy and pointillist articulation to the almost (Aldo) Clementi and Walter Zimmerman-like final pages.        

By Stephen Graham

This recording is available as CD or download from the NMC website