Ravel/Shostakovich – Ibuki Trio – CR5890


“Without a doubt, this is the loveliest, most atmospheric, and most idiomatic performance of the Ravel trio to come my way”

“There’s a clarity and openness to the sound from which the ensemble emerges in an almost holographic-like virtual reality”

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Maurice Ravel’s piano trio was the result of an earlier war insinuating itself into his composition. The work’s first movements, however, were conceived as far from war as imaginable. Early summer 1914 found Ravel at his happiest, holidaying with Alexandre Benois in the Basque town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, on the Atlantic coast half a mile from Ravel’s birthplace of Ciboure. It is said that it was watching ice-cream vendors dancing a fandango at Saint-Jean-de-Luz that Ravel picked up the first theme of his Trio in A, a theme which he incorrectly believed to be Basque. As Shostakovich noted whilst writing his second piano
trio “the concept of `popular spirit in art’ must not be vulgarised or impoverished by being reduced to the mere task of using musical intonations from folk life. To be `popular in spirit’ is to be intrinsically linked to the whole classical heritage of our people, right up to the highest achievements of … symphony and opera music.”  Ravel excelled in `intrinsically linking’ world music’s into his classical heritage (most startlingly in Chansons Madecassses). The Pantoum, Assez vif integrates a complex Malayan verse-form with
music. Difficult enough to realise in poetry (it was used by Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal), let alone music, the Pantoum requires two distinct ideas to make sense both in alternation and in combination. To these motifs Ravel adds a third lyrical, augmented theme, binding together the middle of the Pantoum.

The sudden outbreak of war came as a great shock to Ravel. Travelling to Paris, the fragile Ravel called in every favour in a futile attempt to fight – “I know I am working for the nation in writing music … but that’s no consolation.” Ravel accelerated his work, hoping to complete the trio before serving his country. Whilst there is no record of the chronology of composition of the movements, it seems the shadow of war colours the vast arch that forms the Passacaille, Très large. Although not a true passagalia – the theme never quite constantly repeats -Ravel, as in Boléro and La Valse, demonstrates his extraordinary ability to shape musical structure. As Pablo Casals would have it: “Rainbows …  rainbows: nearly all music is like that. If one only makes this observation it is already a guide.” The Final, Animé sees Ravel, the most gifted of orchestrators; stretch the sonorities of the piano trio, sonorities he was not always convinced that performers fully realised. If a political dimension is to be discerned in the second half of the trio, then here is a trumpeted praise of the French government of `Sacred Union’.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s second piano trio, Op. 67 opens with three distinct voices speaking in counterpoint. One of these, the high `weeping child’ harmonics of the cello, recollect that Shostakovich worked on the trio shortly after the sudden death of one of his closest friends, Ivan Sollertinsky, in February 1944.

The relentless, angular Allegro con brio, however, reflects the parallels Shostakovich drew between military victory and cultural strength. After consecutive Octobers facing Germans at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad, Shostakovich wrote that “nothing fills my heart with more pride than the thunder of guns firing a salute over our capital. Never in history has the glory of the Russian armed forces been so high”, whilst noting that “Russian chamber music is blossoming today, producing works of classical importance. The remarkable development of the national music of the non-Russian Soviet republics is also widely known.”

The remainder of the trio is unremittingly bleak. Eight terrifying, deathly keyboard chords herald the Largo, above repetitions of which the violin and cello plaintively dialogue; as the trio was being written, Shostakovich could not have been unaware of the horrors of the Nazi atrocities committed during the German retreat. The final Allegretto – Adagio draws on a Jewish dance of death, the Hasidic vehicle for redemption. Despair is built into the very fabric of the movement as a massive enlargement of the dance modulates downwards over the course of three hundred bars. Significantly, these dance motifs reoccur in the autobiographical eighth quartet, overlaid with Shostakovich’s initials -D (E)sCH.

Shostakovich doesn’t merely sympathize with the plight of the Jewish people; he identifies himself as a Jew. As life departs the dance all that is left is a recapitulation of the Largo’s funereal chords, amplified by the weeping harmonics of the trio’s opening.

© 2012 Christopher Suckling

Ben Wragg violinist, Laura Anstee cellist and Kan Tomita pianist met as teenagers at the Purcell school in 1995. Since then each of them followed their own paths and reunited as adults to form the Ibuki trio. Ben studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Laura Anstee also studied at the Royal Academy and Kan at the Royal College of Music London. They have all had unique experiences as performers and appeared in major concert halls around the world winning competitions and playing as soloists and chamber musicians. Ben Wragg notably won The Making Music Young Concert Artist Award, The Countess of Munster Award, The Jerwood Foundation Scholarship and The Concordia Foundation. He has been described as “technically and musically out of the ordinary” by the legendary Ruggiero Ricci. Kan won the Kendall Taylor Beethoven Prize, the Hopkinson Gold Medal and the Florestano Rossomandi International Piano Competition in Italy (2004). He has also been described by Japanese press thus “superb technical accomplishment and poetry …stunning”. Laura has an interest in world music genres notably Jewish Klezmer, Gypsy, Balkan and Latin music which has greatly enriched her approach to music today. She was awarded the Herbert Walenn prize, Douglas Cameron prize, McEwen prize and Gwyneth George prize.

Ibuki would like to express their gratitude to professors and colleagues who have inspired them and taken part in shaping their musical careers. These include Mats Lidstrom, Philip Sheppard, Joan Foster, the late Ronald Smith, the late Irina Zaritskaya, Andrew Ball, Frank Wibaut, Mateja Marinkovic, Ruggiero Ricci, and Jack & Linn Rothstein.

Since the birth of the Ibuki trio they have performed at LSO St Luke’s, London, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester and played on BBC Radio 3 but they are most proud and honoured to have recorded two masterpieces of the piano trio repertoire: the Ravel and Shostakovich trios. Making this disc was in itself a beautiful, challenging, demanding and unforgettable experience for us and we hope you enjoy it.

Great thanks to the Jean Ginsberg Memorial Foundation and Sukemasa Tomita for their financial contributions, Florian Leonhard Fine Violins for kindly lending instruments of Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1779, Turin) and Carlo Tononi (1710 Venice), the Wragg family, Anstee family and Tomita family for their support.

We are very thankful to have had the opportunity to record in St. Bartholomew church, Brighton with recording engineer and producer Colin Atwell who has supported us throughout.

This disc is dedicated to all our beautiful children, Joseph, Luke, Elara, Coco, Yume, Isobel and Henry.

Review – Fanfare Magazine

The pairing of Ravel’s sole Piano Trio with the more popular of Shostakovich’s two piano trios, the No. 2 in E Minor, is not unique, but it’s not all that common either. I came across three such listings: by the Mondrian Trio on Challenge, the Fujita Piano Trio on Intim Musik, and the TrioMats (one word) on Daphne. Sorry to say, I’m not familiar with any of them, but Bart Verhaeghe gave the Fujita account a reasonably positive review in 32:1.

Here we have a fairly youngish-looking ensemble of players billing themselves as the Ibuki Trio—Ben Wragg, violin; Laura Anstee, cello; and Kan Tomita, piano. They are London-met musicians who first came together as teenagers in 1995 while studying at the Purcell School. No explanation is offered for the name of the group, Ibuki, which—take your pick—could be a reference to a Japanese mountain, actor, politician, or action figure from the video game, Street Fighter. The recording at hand, only now released, was originally made in 2008, and, according to the group’s official website, is the first and only recording the ensemble has produced.

The question is why? Without a doubt, this is the loveliest, most atmospheric, and most idiomatic performance of the Ravel trio to come my way since I gushed over the Icicle Creek Piano Trio’s Con Brio recording of the piece in 32:5; and if it’s possible, the Ibuki Trio is even better. Just listen to the way pianist Tomita tickles the keys in the Assez vif movement, and the way that Wragg and Anstee dance around him like figures flitting by in silhouette. But it’s not just Ravel’s scherzo movement that’s informed and infused by this level of musicianship. It never ceases to amaze me how a chamber ensemble, be it a string quartet or, in this case, a piano trio, can seemingly appear out of nowhere and simply dominate the field in a widely recorded standard-repertoire work, but the Ibuki Trio has managed just that when it comes to the Ravel.

As for the Shostakovich, I won’t say that the Ibuki’s performance outclasses the David Trio’s account I drooled over in 35:3, but the Ibuki’s players have a rather different interpretive take on the score, which makes their reading every bit as ear-catching. Theirs is a warmer and altogether more humorous reading of the piece in contrast to the David’s starker and more angular approach, which emphasizes the irony and parody in Shostakovich’s music. For the Ibuki, some of the piece is just plain funny, without the caustic overlay of sarcasm.

Once again, the scherzo-like second movement is a real standout. The whole thing is a hoot, but you have to listen especially for the cello grunts and groans starting at 1:16. I don’t mean to be crude, but it sounds like a constipated hippo straining to move its bowels. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a cellist put this particular spin on the part before, but it’s just hilarious.

Claudio wants us to know in large, boldface type that this is no ordinary CD; it’s what the company calls “High Definition,” a “192Hz/24-bit recording.” We’re also informed that there’s a DVD-A version available, a format which apparently hasn’t sparked much interest among the industry or consumers because titles are few and far between. In any case, whatever recording equipment and techniques were used to make this CD, the results are nothing short of amazing. There’s a clarity and openness to the sound from which the ensemble emerges in an almost holographic-like virtual reality.

I must wonder aloud again why the Ibuki Trio hasn’t already recorded major chunks of the mainstream piano trio literature. It will be a terrible loss if this exceptional ensemble doesn’t embark, posthaste, on a crash course to record it all. Meanwhile, this is going on my provisional Want List for 2013, and I would urge you to make haste to acquire this release. Jerry Dubins

This article originally appeared in Issue 37:1 (Sept/Oct 2013) of Fanfare Magazine.