Out of the Box: Neave Trio & "Her Voice"

Nov 15, 2019

Take a moment to enjoy piano trios by three infrequently performed composers - Louise Farrenc, Amy Beach, and Rebecca Clarke. This music is extremely worth your time. 

ALBUM: Neave Trio: Her Voice - Piano Trios by Farrenc, Beach, and Clarke

MUST LISTEN TRACKS: All of it. Simple as that. Louise Farrenc: Trio No. 1 in E flat, Op. 33 / Amy Beach: Trio in A minor, Op. 150 / Rebecca Clarke: Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano.

WHY I THINK YOU'LL LOVE IT: The playing is spectacular, per usual for the Neave Trio, and the opportunity to familiarize yourself with some brilliant compositions by three marginalized composers is simply not to be missed.  

On top of listening to and enjoying the music, I highly recommend listening to (and enjoying) this interview with Neave Trio violinist Anna Williams. In it, we chat about the origins of the Her Voice project, why it's important, and what it means to the group to try to bring these trios more into the mainstream.


THE PIANO TRIO

I first got hooked on piano trios - works for violin, cello, and piano - my freshman year of college. I had decided to make a career in music, and, wanting to expand the amount of music I knew about, started going to the small CD section of the campus library to find as many classical albums as I could to rip onto my iPod. I was never an instrumentalist, always a singer, and with platforms like Spotify and Pandora still a few years from development, randomly pulling discs from the spinning CD kiosk in the basement of the library seemed as good a method as any to expand my knowledge.

I fatefully pulled a 1985 recording by the Borodin Trio of Felix Mendelssohn’s piano trios from the rack and fell irreversibly in love with the genre. 

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what is that I find so moving about a piano trio. I suppose it’s simply how the instruments interact. There's the narrative and dramatic upper voice of the violin, the rich and grounded cello voice below, at times reinforcing the violin’s narrative and at others adding its own, and the piano’s multitude of voices, colors and emotions, balancing the violin and cello with an incredible spectrum of sounds. Piano trios are to die for, and I can’t get enough.

I mention this because it underlined my excitement for the Neave Trio’s newest album, Her Voice: Piano Trios by Louise Farrenc, Amy Beach, and Rebecca Clarke. Here again was a chance to get into some trios, trios that I knew almost nothing about!

THE COMPOSERS

Composers Louise Farrenc (left), Amy Beach (middle), and Rebecca Clarke (right)
Credit Wikimedia Commons

The musical languages of Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), Amy Beach (1864-1944), and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) are, unsurprisingly, very different from one another. In fact, about all they have in common is that all three women were trailblazers at a time when the words “composer” and “woman” were hardly ever seen side-by-side.

Louise Farrenc's Piano Trio No. 1 is decidedly mid-19th-century Romantic, and is my favorite of the bunch. It is so melodically rich and deep, with a powerful and heartfelt narrative that seamlessly moves between titillating pastoral joy, conflicted angst, and contemplative ennui. It reflects what a truly genius composer she was (she wrote more than 50 compositions, including two symphonies), and leaves no doubt as to why Robert Schumann was such a fan, or why she was the only woman during the whole 19th century to be hired as a professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire. Her music is incredible.

Amy Beach wrote her Trio in A minor, her last major work, in 1938 when she was in her 70s. Despite the date of composition, the musical language harkens back to earlier times, to the dreamy, Impressionistic music of the turn of the 20th century. And the trio is pleasantly nostalgic.

Perhaps I think of the trio as nostalgic because I know there was much for Amy Beach to proudly look back on. Over her life she had become a world-renowned pianist, written dozens and dozens of solo piano works, songs, and choral works (including her Mass in E-flat, premiered by the Handel and Haydn Society in 1892, the first work by a woman they'd ever performed). She composed a symphony and had it published and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896, a piano concerto that was premiered by the same group two years later (she was the featured soloist), an opera, and several chamber works, including her trio. This was a formidable composer, and the depth and breadth of her life of composing is brought beautifully to bear in this piano trio.

Historically there has been a lot of amazing work put forth by people of different genders and races, and any time we can bring them to light, it's a no brainer - wonderful music, is wonderful music, is wonderful music! - Anna Williams, violinist for the Neave Trio

Rebecca Clarke, of the three women on the album, probably had the least support despite living the closest to our own time. Where Farrenc and Beach's families were largely supportive of their respective careers, Clarke's family was against it. Where the music of the others was well-received and even admired, Clarke's works were either ignored when they were performed, or thought to have been written by men under pen-names (because how could a woman possibly compose music so complex?).

She had what she called her "one little whiff of success" in 1919 when her viola sonata tied for first place in the Berkshire Music Festival composition competition. But of her more than 100 compositions, "only 20 pieces were published in her lifetime," according to the Rebecca Clarke Society, "and by the time of her death in 1979, at age 93, all of these were long out of print." Perhaps that informs the darker, more gnarly musical language of her Piano Trio. Or perhaps, like so much music written in the 1920s, that language is a reflection of the horrified, post-World War I mood, stunned at what man could do to man. Hard to say, but this trio is certainly the most complex on the album (and it’s worth noting, this was the work the Neave Trio was most excited to get their hands on). 

HER VOICE

It's one thing to make an album of little-known music. It's another thing to make a really good album of little-known music that drives a listener to crave repeat listens. And the Neave Trio has done exactly that.

Her Voice is absolutely superb. 

Which is unsurprising. The Neave Trio performs with the calm and confident comradery of a group that has played together for more than a decade. That interconnectivity leaps from your speakers on Her Voice and settles into your ears as they play. Deeply emotional and deliberate, reverential and joyful all in one fell swoop, I cannot get enough of this album and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.