Beethoven & Ravel (www.claremonttrio.com)
*** (out of 4)
Twice this month I've been confounded by beautiful playing. First, it was Olga Kern in live performance. Now it's the 11-year-old Claremont Trio, made up of twin sitsters Emily and Julia Bruskin (on violin and cello, respectively) and pianist Donna Kwong, on its fourth CD album. (You can access all the details about the album and the trio by clicking on their name, at the top. The label is Tria Records, which I can't find any information on, so I suspect it is something the Claremonts have created to help sell their albums.)
In both instances, the playing is technically flawless and impeccably prepared, meaning that the performers have carefully thought through every nuance of their interpretations. There is no way anyone would not call the performances beautiful, but could it be that too much beauty can get in the way of the essence of the music itself?
I realise I'm dealing with the most gaseous realm of the critical experience -- the bond that forms between listener and performer -- and that there cannot and will not ever be a way of establishing what interpretive approach is going to be more correct than another. So we will debate the point endlessly -- spreading lively discussion and ruffled feathers as we go.
But back to the Claremonts, who offer up Beethoven's Op. 1 C-minor Trio at the same time as the Gryphon Trio, whose new, al-Beethoven album I've reviewed in today's Star. This piece makes for a particularly potent point of comparison. The Gryphons lay out the music with unaffected directness, while the Claremonts make it sound, for lack of a better term, shiny -- it sparkles and gleams, so much so that it's a bit distracting. The bowing is too smooth, the pianism too facile. Humanity is diminished in the name of colour and flash. But this is incredibly fine work, and it's likely many listeners would prefer it to the intimacy of the Gryphons' effort.
Maurice Ravel's Trio comes out better, because surface is so much more important to this composer's sound. And these surfaces are flawless, like the freshly polished marble floor of a luxurious entrance hall. But, for me, the Claremonts' delicacy and perfection cross the line into icy distance.
Someone has already posted the Ravel Trio on YouTube, so here's a taste, so you can judge for yourself: