Great review in The Arts Music Lounge
October 8, 2023
Lynn René Bayley
I generally make it a policy not to review very short albums or classical “singles,” the point of which I completely fail to grasp, but I made an exception in this case because the piece is by the great Danish composer Poul Ruders. In this case the recording is also not being issued as a physical disc, but as a digital-only release. Sadly, this is the way the classical market works nowadays. Except for a handful of adventurous CD labels, if you want to sell a great modern work to the classical public you have to just put it online because most well-known piano trios won’t even touch new works in live performances.
Fortunately, the Trio Con Brio Copenhagen is one of those adventurous trios, although it’s a bit ironic that only one of their members, pianist Jens Elvekjaer, is Danish. His wife is the Korean-born cellist Soo-Kyung Hong and his sister-in-law Soo-Jin Hong is the violinist. More power to them!
I found it interesting that the Hong sisters both play this piece with straight tone, a technique normally reserved for ruining older music, but in the mysterious opening of the first movement it creates an eerie sound quality wholly appropriate to the music. As the movement gets into gear and becomes faster, we do hear an occasional fast vibrato on held notes, which is appropriate, but in this case it is the music and not the medium that grips the listener. Here, Ruders has created yet another masterpiece. The music evolves and develops with almost lightning speed in this first movement, yet he never uses this speed simply to dazzle the listener with meaningless rhetoric. Every note has a purpose, and as the music continues he shifts gears between fast and slow passages, occasionally even using surprisingly melodic lines with tonal harmony for contrast. Ruders, like Kalevi Aho, simply has one of those great musical minds that simply cannot turn out a shallow or uninteresting work. He has a higher standard than many younger composers.
One thing that fascinated me in this opening movement was that Ruders gives the strings the melodic content whereas the piano is generally relegated to a series of single notes with an occasional chord tossed in here and there. This emphasizes the underlying rhythm without overdoing it, and there is no question that Trio Con Brio has the full measure of this music. The legato passages sing, the fast, exciting ones absolutely crackle with energy. You couldn’t ask for a better performance, and thus, between the high quality of the music and the high quality of the playing, you have here once of the most intriguing and brilliant modern piano trios I’ve heard in a long, long time. At the end of this movement, the music reaches fever pitch as Elvekjaer’s piano suddenly becomes a full partner in the whirlwind coda, which almost gave me whiplash to listen to!
Then there is the second movement. Typically of Ruders, it is music of depth and feeling, a more modern successor to Nielsen, and just listen to how the Hong sisters imbue every single note with feeling, almost with pathos but never overly-sentimental. The music here is essentially tonal but with the chord roots moving around underneath to slightly subvert the harmony, and once again the Hong sisters use straight tone to create an almost unearthly mood that could not have been achieved if played with too much vibrato. This is music of great but undefined sadness, so strongly felt that it is almost cosmic.
The third and final movement is a bizarre whiplash of sound at the outset which occasionally settles into brief melodic gestures but never quite becomes a continuous theme, rather a series of short ones strung together (another Ruders trademark). Yet, as in the first movement, somehow it all makes sense as you just listen and absorb it all. The violin and cello play loud upward glissandi at one point with the piano smashing chords underneath, then they pull back a bit on the volume but not the tempo. The cello plays held notes with crescendos in them which further heighten the drama—and a very dramatic piece this last movement is.
What a great gift to the world this recording is! I highly recommend it to you. Listen to it a few times; you’ll hear things on repeated listening that may have escaped you the first time. It’s that rich and that great of a piece.