Pelléas Ensemble: Oliver Wass, harp; Henry Roberts, flute; Luba Tunniclife, viola. Linn Records, 2021.
During the First World War and while dying from cancer, Claude Debussy set out to compose a cycle of sonatas for various instruments. He intended to write six, but only completed three—one for cello, one for violin, and an extraordinary piece for flute, viola,and harp. The magical combination of these disparate voices coupled with the ambiguous and emotionally detached dreamscape of the music, has forever made its mark.
The Pelléas Ensemble (Oliver Wass, harp; Henry Roberts, flute; andLuba Tunnicliffe, viola) is a supremely talented group formed at the Guildhall School of Music in London. Their debut album Nature and the Imagination begins with the iconic trio where the three play up the groundless and floating quality with spot-on ensemble and bold, expressive phrasing. Paraphrasing Debussy’s own words, they capture perfectly that indescribable space of laughing and crying at once.
Further quoting Debussy, the title of the album itself comes from a concept of music not so much about reproducing nature’s music, but in discovering nature’s correspondence with the imagination. Certainly an imaginative album of repertoire follows with three short keyboard works by Jean-Phillippe Rameau. Elegantly arranged by Pelléas, these appealing breaths of fresh air shine as more than the notes on the page, widening the color palette, emphasizing inner voices creatively and providing sizzling sonorities.
Most interesting to me as a flutist is the section exploring Debussy’s Syrinx. As a reminder of the solo flute source material, Roberts displays delicious introspection in husky, muted tones before the group melts into Richard Rodney Bennett’s brilliant After Syrinx. The composer was said to be fascinated by Debussy’s late works and this is one of four explorations of the material. You’ll hear Pelléas at their best, Debussy’s heartbreaking song of the dying nymph tripping out of the flute with Wass adroitly providing an irregular, ancient-sounding accompaniment. When she enters, Tunnicliffe mesmerizes with rich vibrancy. From here, the music takes on a wild urgency. A brief return to the dreamy material leads finally to an even more aggressive section that again highlights the energy, passion and fire of this trio in dazzling technique that breathes its last in a whisper.
English composer Arnold Bax was an Irish nationalist wannabe, writing poetry under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne. His Elegiac Trio was composed in response to the Easter Uprising and its brutal suppression, including the execution of some of his closest friends. The music is not overtly violent, or even sad for that matter. Rather it’s reflective and dreamy in the style of Debussy, which accounts for the use of the same three voices as the Sonata. Pelléasis powerful in this piece, their tones matched as if finishing one another’s sentences, encouraging noble yet heartfelt musical statements.
Thoroughly enjoyable is Benjamin Graves’ icy and jagged Scherzo written for the ensemble in 2017. Beginning with what seems like a romp, the music takes on a larger-than-life persona, evanescing into a spectacle of extended techniques, an entirely new set of possibilities for tonal exploration. Stunningly executed, the trio is full-tilt at play, enjoying all that their instruments can do as well as the joy of returning to the quirky dance in ¾ time. It’s certainly a joy for the listener.
The album ends with a delightful surprise in the oh-so-very-French arrangement of two Gershwin hits by Stephen Roberts