Exactly a month ago ECM New Series released a recoding simply entitled Tre Voci (three voices). Since it featured performances by the trio of flutist Marina Piccinini, violist Kim Kashkashian, and harpist Sivan Magen, it would be easy to assume that they were the “voices” referred to by the title. However, the contents of the album consists of three twentieth century compositions by three different composers. In order of “appearance” these are Toru Takemitsu (“And then I knew ’twas Wind”), Claude Debussy (his sonata for these three instruments), and Sofia Gubaidulina (“Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten,” translated as “garden of joys and sorrows” and requiring a narrator as well as the musicians). Each of these composers brings a uniquely distinctive “voice” to the album; and, for that matter, Debussy’s sonata is in three movements, each of which “speaks” with its own unique set of “personality traits.” Perhaps the title should have been 3 x 3 Voci?
In all likelihood Debussy was the first composer to write an extended composition for this collection of instruments. It was the second of a set of six sonatas he planned at the end of his life, but he only lived long enough to complete three of them. The other two involve more familiar instruments, violin in the first and cello in the third, both with piano accompaniment. Debussy completed the second trio in 1915.
Ironically, Arnold Bax chose to compose a reflection on the Easter Uprising of 1916, writing it shortly after the event and calling it “Elegiac Trio.” He used the same instrumentation as Debussy, more likely because each of the three instruments had its own connection to Irish folk music than because he knew about Debussy’s sonata. Nevertheless, a repertoire was beginning to take shape; and, in my home town of San Francisco, a trio was formed last year with the explicit goal of performing that repertoire. Since Kashkashian tends to be a regular visitor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, it is more likely that she had some knowledge of this group than that Bax knew about Debussy’s sonata!
Nevertheless, Bax is not part of this new ECM New Series release. Instead, each of compositions that precedes and follows the Debussy sonata takes a poem as its point of departure, rather than a historical event. Takemitsu’s title comes from Emily Dickenson, the second line of a poem that begins:
Like Rain it sounded till it curved
Gubaidulina’s connection to poetry is even richer. Her title is taken from the text of the Russian poet Iv Oganov, specifically from a poem about the Armenian poet Sayat Nova. However, the score also requires a recitation of a poem by the Viennese poet Francisco Tanzer following the conclusion of the music (meaning that the narrator can be one of the musicians, if not some combination of them reciting in unison). On this recording that recitation is in German, but the accompanying booklet provides the English translation.
What is most interesting about Debussy’s composition is that his sonata-writing project seems to have been motivated by a need to get beyond traditions of what a sonata should be that had been around for centuries. Each of the three sonatas he completed breaks new ground in a unique way. One can thus think of each sonata as an arrow based in the second decade of the twentieth century that is pointing into the future. With that proposition as a premise, one may thus listen to the two trios by Takemitsu and Gubaidulina as “data points” for what was at the other end of the arrow. (By the time each began working on his/her composition, there were any number of efforts to account for the violin and cello sonatas!)
Thus, while Takemitsu and Gubaidulina each approach their work from their own respective rhetorical stances, there are more that a few hints that their results actually fit in quite well with Debussy’s “pioneering” effort. The result is an album with three distinctively different compositions (voices). However, as the listener is drawn into the music (s)he is likely to recognize that, for all of those differences, these pieces make remarkably good company for each other.