Monday, June 21, 2021

Lincoln Trio celebrates two well-rooted conservative Chicago modernists

 The adept Lincoln Trio — violinist Desiree Ruhstrat, cellist David Cunliffe, pianist Marta Aznavoorian —   has borrowed the muscular rhetoric of Carl Sandburg's poetry in titling its new Cedille release "Music from the City of Big Shoulders."

The Lincoln Trio adds to its attractive discography.

The disc comprises two big-shouldered works by 20th-century composers who were born or made their names in Chicago: Ernst Bacon (Trio No. 2) and Leo Sowerby (Trio [1953]). Both men achieved wide-ranging musical careers, each with a Pulitzer Prize composition to his credit.

The Bacon recording is a world premiere. The Sowerby I know from a recording made on the New World label decades ago; there it is paired with a piece for the same instrumentation by the teenage composer. The earlier piece displays a tendency to ride hard on his materials, a doggedness that persists in the piece on the new recording. Fortunately, the material is more distinguished in the 1953 piece. But the adolescent drive to show off craftsmanship remains; the inspiration in the work under review is at a higher level over the course of three expansive movements.

The Lincoln Trio fully engages with the "Slow and solemn" instruction heading the first movement, but it is careful to acknowledge that the spirit of song underlies everything and must be lifted up. There is gravity without excessive weighing down, which makes the movement's 14-and-a-half-minute length inviting, especially since the darkness brightens and acquires energy along the way. 

"Quiet and serene" (the second movement) allows the musicians to shed light on the emotional spectrum available to this composer at slow tempos. The Lincoln Trio's very patient unfolding of the material relieves the impression that Sowerby was a little too self-indulgent here. The finale ("Fast, with broad sweep") opens with the piano rumbling along in triplet rhythm as violin and cello enter in unison, their broad melody later joined in irresistible forward motion by the piano, confirming a headlong march that accelerates near the end. 

Though I'm without extensive knowledge of either composer's output, I suspect that Sowerby rarely worked with the concise, stimulating variety that Bacon shows in his six-movement Trio. The slow first movement, impressive in its pacing and airy texture, shifts in its second part to "deliberate march time." Both featured composers thus indicate an affinity for marches that now seems somewhat old-fashioned, and suggests no modern master more than Shostakovich. 

But Bacon is content to let the mood pass, yielding to "In an easy walk" (third movement), in which a walker swinging his arms comes readily to mind, perhaps breaking into a jog before the easy-walk music resumes briefly at the end. There remain a "Gravely expressive" fourth movement, in which cello melodies come naturally to the fore; a rushing, syncopated "Allegro" that touches on Chicago's bustle and jazz heritage; an aptly titled "Commodo" movement to move relaxation back downstage, and, finally, "Vivace, ma non presto," which deftly passes back and forth suggestions of two Italian triple-meter forms, the tarantella and the barcarole.

Recording quality is well-defined without isolating the instruments unduly. In drawing attention to this music, the Lincoln Trio is clearly of one mind, even when, in these fetching works, the two honored composers are of several minds. Nonetheless, their distinction as minor American masters is most capably presented in "Music from the City of Big Shoulders."

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