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Benaud Trio

MusicWeb International (UK)
Nick Barnard

Ross EDWARDS (b.1943)
Piano Trio (1998) [16:09]
Paul STANHOPE (b.1969)
Piano Trio 'Dolcissimo Uscignolo' (2007) [13:59]
Matthew HINDSON (b.1968)
Piano Trio (2007) [21:52]
Nicholas BUC (b.1982)
Trailer Music (2010) [12:31]
Benaud Trio
rec. 2010, South Melbourne Town Hall, Australian National Academy of Music

Goodness me, this is an excellent CD. Recorded back in 2010, this was the Benaud Trio's debut recording and three of the four works by living Australian composers received their world premieres performances on disc.  I cannot fault any aspect of this release; the music is diverse but interesting and of considerable musical merit, the playing is exceptional - completely attuned to the idiom and technically immaculate, while the production and presentation are equally fine.
The four works presented all share a similar musical vernacular: post-modern contemporary music which fuses sharply contrasting passages both in terms of dynamics, rhythmic energy and instrumental textures.  This is not atonal music by any means but the use of tonality is again free and individual.  The disc opens with Ross Edwards' 1998 Piano Trio.  This is the one work to have been recorded prior to this disc and was written as the test work for the 1998 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition.  Edwards is one of Australia's best-known composers and this trio is a typically impressive work.  It is cast in three strongly contrasting movements which explore the various combinations and textures the three instruments offer.  Clarity in terms of both composition and execution is very evident.  Paul Stanhope's Piano Trio 'Dolcissimo Uscignolo' takes its name from Monteverdi's madrigal of the same name.  The liner quotes Stanhope regarding his use of the madrigal: "I was drawn to [this madrigal] not only because of its heartbreakingly beautiful melody and luminous harmonic style, but because of its textual playfulness".  The work is cast in a single fourteen-minute movement with Stanhope referencing the original work in a fragmentary motivic manner which he likens to being; "in the manner of half-recalled memories".  The work is in an arch-like form with slow and reflective outer panels framing an extended central section of fast dance-like music.  Again, I was very impressed with how well the players balance the extremes between stasis and action, hushed and hectic.  They find an ideal balance between excitingly driven energy while maintaining perfect ensemble and intonation. This is compelling music played with total conviction.  I had not encountered Stanhope's music before but this makes me wish to seek out more.
The presence of Matthew Hindson's Piano Trio was the primary reason I was interested in reviewing this disc.  To my ear Hindson is one of the few contemporary composers who has convincingly bridged the idiom of contemporary music with the vernacular of popular culture.  He does not write pastiche or obvious music; it is simply that his style in part references and integrates musical gestures that have their roots in popular contemporary music rather than anything more explicitly contemporary.  Indeed, this trio showcases this fusion of style and influences from the jittery almost minimalist opening Moto Perpetuo via the trance-music influenced central Repetitions to the closing Epic Diva.  This takes its title from the genre of singing found in anthemic electronic-based dance music.  Do not for a moment assume that because of the 'pop' basis for this music that it is either simple or in any way banal.  It sounds as if it is great fun to play albeit, very demanding, too.  At just shy of twenty-two minutes, this is the longest work on the disc, but again the impression is of concision and tautly argued musical discourse.  The three movements are very strongly differentiated from each other too creating a well-balanced whole.
Strongly differentiated is the ideal description for Nicholas Buc's Trailer Music which completes the disc.  Again, this is a single movement with the trailer in question being the pre-film adverts you see at the cinema.  This allows Buc to produce a kaleidoscope of musical and emotional vignettes where the listener is taken "…on a journey through turbulent action set pieces, sinewy psychological dramas, quirky character stories, innocent romances, and magical wonderment."  By definition, this is music that is high on narrative and pictorial elements with Buc relishing in recreating the musical signposts for all of the cinematic genres mentioned above.  He does it with great skill - one might imagine this piece could become simply a series of hollow pastiches but instead he has created a brilliant - albeit fairly light hearted - sequence of musical sketches where part of the pleasure for the listener is to decide for themselves exactly which genre is being depicted.  I can imagine this work proving to be extremely popular in concert as a closing display-piece.  Certainly that is how the Benaud Trio perform it with exceptional panache and bravura.  This is not a work that takes itself at all seriously but it is great fun.
All in all, this is a most enjoyable hour of musical excellence from all concerned.  These are works that in their very different ways all deserve to be performed widely as each is a valuable addition to the piano trio repertoire.  I imagine the Benaud Trio have recorded many more discs in the last decade or so, but this was a very auspicious debut.  The engineering and production here are first-rate, too, with an ideal balance struck between the three instruments.  The South Melbourne Town Hall provides an acoustic which is airy and transparent with warmth but not excessive resonance.  The nicely produced liner (in English, German and French) gives brief but useful information about the music and the ensemble.  From that, I learn that the players in the trio are cricket fanatics - there is no indication as to how or why they are named the Benaud Trio but I assume the great Australian cricket captain/commentator of that name had something to do with it!
This is a winner of a disc in every regard.