Could it be due to lockdown that so many recordings of French chamber music have been released recently? It is certainly easier and safer to bring a few musicians together, rather than a larger ensemble, especially if all the players live near each other. The Paris-based Trio Hélios, founded in 2014 and made up of Camille Fonteneau (violin), Raphaël Jouan (cello), and Alexis Gournel (piano), has joined the trend by releasing the appropriately named album “Un Matin de Printemps” (A Spring Morning).
The title, heralding new beginnings, actually comes from one of the pieces on the album, “D’un Matin de Printemps.” Poignantly, it was the final piece written by composer Lili Boulanger before her death from tuberculosis at the age of 24 in 1918. Another of her last pieces, “D’un Soir Triste” (On a Sad Evening), is also on the album, joined by piano trios written by two older male French composers, Camille Saint-Saëns (Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major, from 1863), whose compositions seem to be enjoying a renaissance these days, and Maurice Ravel (Piano Trio in A Minor, written in 1914, on the eve of World War I).
This would make an interesting quiz question: which of these three composers – Saint-Saëns, Ravel or Boulanger – was the only one to win the prestigious Prix de Rome for composition (all three entered the competition at different times). The answer is Boulanger, the first woman composer ever to win the prize, at a time when all the arts were completely dominated by men. And, from the two pieces on this recording, it isn’t difficult to guess why the jury awarded her the prize. She has a very distinctive musical voice, right on the edge between tonality and atonality, and does not cede to sentimentality of any sort, even though she must have known how gravely ill she was when writing both pieces.
Saint-Saëns’s first Piano Trio was composed in the year that he failed to win the Prix de Rome for a second time, and the inventive wit of the music certainly belies the long-held opinion that he was an overly conservative and unimaginative composer. The Trio is said to have been inspired by a holiday he took in the Pyrenees, and it does have a certain fresh-air charm to it. But what I love most about the piece, and the Hélios Trio’s delightful performance, is its rhythmic fluidity. In the first movement, the composer seems to move seamlessly between two-time and three-time, keeping the instrumentalists and listeners on their toes, while the off-beat accents between pizzicato strings and piano in the third-movement Scherzo are particularly exhilarating.
Ravel was said to have been a great admirer of the Saint-Saëns Trio, and his Trio strikes me as similarly interesting rhythmically: in three of the four movements, he uses irregular time signatures. In no way does he simply copy the older composer, however. Ravel’s Basque origins are clearly at the root of this piece and give it a distinctive quality that makes the music very much his own. The way the melody is passed between the different instruments, especially in the third-movement Passacaglia, shows the Trio Hélios at its very best; the musicians are clearly at ease with each other.
As much as one might want to discern dark forebodings of the looming Great War in this Trio, the rich textures and use of various effects like trills and tremolos show that the composer is reveling in his craft and not looking ahead.
The Trio Hélios effectively communicates the joys of spring on this excellent album, playing throughout with supreme technical competence and infectious musicality. I will listen out for future releases with interest, whatever the season!
Nick Hammond’s latest book, The Powers of Sound and Song in Early Modern Paris, is now available in paperback and as an e-book here and from online vendors.Favorite