Years ago there was a gag coffee table book called Masterpieces of Irish Erotic Art —which is certainly not to be confused with Seamus Cork’s droll (and very real) Irish Erotic Art: When You Care Enough to Give the Very Least. You bought the earlier volume, opened it up, and there was nothing but blank pages.
If to some an album subtitled Contemporary Piano Trios from Ireland might raise the same sort of suspicions, then that’s only because they haven’t kept up with Ireland’s current serious music scene. In the last quarter century or so there’s been a quite uprising of Irish performers, ensembles, and composers, meaning that if you think Irish music is limited to the nocturnes of John Field, then you’re a little behind the times.
This Metier anthology begins impressively with the Piano Trio from 2013 by John Buckley (b. 1951), which like all but one of the works on the album was written for the Fidelio Trio. Each of the three movements of this vividly colorful score bares a descriptive title: “Shadows and Echos,” the composer tells us, “was suggested by the flickering images of pre-film animation devices such as the zoetrope. Throughout the movement, dramatic gestures dissolve into shadowy whispers.” As they certainly do, with a consummate sense of proportion and lightness of touch. More colorful still — predictably—is the second movement: “A musical equivalent of the shifting visual patterns in a kaleidoscope.” Best of all is “Music Box,” the witty and engaging finale. “Mechanical music boxes are both magical and surreal at the same time. In the final movement… it is discovered that the figures in the music box have deep and turbulent emotional lives, but only while the music plays. The music ends as the music box winds down.” It might be argued that the only discernable flaw in this captivating structure is that it winds down a bit too soon.
Should there ever be a Calvin Coolidge Award for terse, composer-generated program notes, Fergus Johnston (b. 1959) would win in a walk. “The Piano Trio was written for the Fidelio Trio in 2011. It has three movements, all of which use the same material, a four-note motif. The first movement follows a stuttering path statement of the motif heading off in a different direction, while the second movement uses the idea of a boogie-bass at first, then a tango. The final movement is a threnody.” While the tight-lipped opening movement is a little too grim for its own good, the boogie/tango confrontation in the second is both captivating and amusing —especially when the tango reasserts itself for the final time. Though the composer was under no obligation to reveal the subject of the threnody, you have to assume it was for something deeply personal, given how intensely moving the music proves to be—not much of a stretch given the fact the composer grew up during “The Troubles,” which occasionally spilled over into the Republic of Ireland as well.
Rhona Clarke (b. 1958) manages to pack an enormous amount —both musically and emotionally—into her eight-minute Piano Trio No. 2 from 2001 (revised in 2015). “The violin and cello hold a rather romantic conversation over a barely moving, chordal ostinato on the piano. A fast, fugal second movement follows; the spare-textured, rhythmic style is influenced by Bartok, and contains a slower, reflective section about three quarters through, echoing elements of the first movement.” Whatever influence may have come from Bartok has been thoroughly assimilated into what sounds like a wholly distinctive voice: Brief as it is, the first movement conversation is absorbing (if rather austerely romantic), while the propulsive finale is both exciting and exceptionally well made. In the notes, the composer informs us it was written for a program dedicated to her music for strings and piano; if this trio is any indication, then we need to hear more of it soon and apparently another Metier album devoted entirely to her music is scheduled for release some time in 2017.
The title of the work that gives the album its name, the Piano Trio “Dancing in Daylight” by Seoirse Bodley (b. 1932) is also a fair description of the piece itself. Fourteen minutes of irresistible Irish charm, the trio mixes elements of traditional Irish music with the composer’s own conservative modern idiom in a perfectly natural and completely convincing way. “Movement three begins with a slow melody, based on the Irish slow air style, which is played by the violinist, Darragh Morgan, who began his early musical life in traditional Irish music, in which he received great acclaim. When he gently indicated to me that he would like to use his own ornamentation in this performance, I happily agreed, for he carries on the tradition of Irish musical style with great conviction.” As, indeed, do cellist Adi Tal and pianist Mary Dullea, who from first note to last in this wholly unexpected but consistently enthralling surprise, do themselves, the gifted composers, and the Old Sod very proud.