ebussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp of 1915 was the second of a proposed series of six sonatas, including some for diverse combinations of instruments, of which he completed only three. Although it was originally conceived for flute, oboe and harp, Debussy decided the viola’s darker timbre would work better than the oboe, the stringed instrument contrasting well against the flute. Ironically, across the Channel at roughly the same time, Arnold Bax composed his Elegiac Trio for the same usual combination of instruments. It was first performed at London’s Aeolian Hall on March 26 th , 1917 by the same group which had given the British premiere of Debussy’s Sonata just seven weeks earlier. The Debussy Ensemble pairs these two contemporaneous works, adding a Terzettino by Théodore Dubois from 1905 (the first example of this instrument configuration?), William Mathias’s Zodiac Trio from 1975 and an arrangement by Carlos Salzédo, claimed to be supported by the composer, of Ravel’s Sonatine.
Unfortunately, a thoughtfully constructed programme is marred by two major factors which inhibit enjoyment of this disc. The claustrophobic recording finds us dangerously close to the players—capturing every creak and clatter—while the acoustic is quite reverberant. The playing of flautist Susan Milan is most disappointing. I’ve long admired her artistry, her Gaubert survey for Chandos being particularly fine, but her tone here is laden with heavy vibrato from the first bar of the Debussy, where the long C judders queasily; less mélancoliquement, more mal de mer. Her sound production (and close recording) brings out other undesirable harmonics and whistles.
Matthew Jones’s viola sounds appropriately glassy in the sul ponticello passages in the Pastorale first movement, but his contributions to the opening of the finale sound overly aggressive. Milan and Jones seem mismatched in tone quality. There are several examples in Debussy’s Sonate of Klangfarbenmelodie, where the melodic line is split between two instruments, but the joins are anything but seamless here when flute tone is so wobbly. It is also disconcerting in passages, such as the closing bars of the Pastorale , where flute and viola play in unison; placed either side of the stereo picture, the disparity is particularly alarming if listening via headphones. ‘Expressive and delicate’ are Debussy’s markings at several points in his Sonata; sadly there’s little that’s expressive or delicate here. The classic Melos Ensemble Decca recording remains unsurpassed, although Philippe Bernold, Gérard Caussé and Isabelle Moretti for Harmonia Mundi offer a beautifully expansive account, treating the opening movement as a languorous cousin of the ubiquitous Faune.
Bax’s Elegiac Trio fares a little better. Ieuan Jones’s harp seems more distantly placed, the rippling bardic solos in the single movement work played sensitively, varying dynamics. Milan shows agility and imagination in her solo passages, though the vibrato remains disconcerting. The Nash Ensemble (for Hyperion) or Mobius (Naxos) are both stronger recommendations for this atmospheric work.
The arrangement of Ravel’s Sonatine doesn’t strike one as particularly successful, however attractively played; the harp seems redundant for much of the time, apart from the final Animé movement where a more glittering accompaniment is permitted. The central Mouvement de Menuet is pretty enough.
The Zodiac Trio , an astrological suite composed by Mathias for the Robles Trio, is attractive. Its three movements (‘Pisces’, ‘Aries’, and ‘Taurus’) were selected as the birth signs of the Trio’s three members, said to reflect their characters, the Taurean finale particularly quirky. The imaginative programme concludes with Dubois’s charming Terzettino , in many ways the most persuasive performance on this disc, flute lines admirably clean and a berceuse-like lilting harp accompaniment as flute and viola arch ever skyward: a silver lining on an otherwise unmemorable disc.
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