The Neave Trio Continues Its Voyage Into Uncharted Territory on ‘A Room of Her Own’

These recordings reflect the repertoire the trio has been playing in concerts in recent seasons, and its emphasis on boosting the profiles of new or historically underappreciated voices

By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Composer Amy Beach (1867–1944) famously worried the social restrictions that ruled women’s lives would, in turn, limit their musical expression. “Music is the superlative expression of life experience, and woman by the very nature of her position is denied many of the experiences that color the life of man,” she said. However, the Grammy-nominated Neave Trio—formed in 2010 by violinist Anna Williams; cellist Mikhail Veselov; and pianist Eri Nakamura—seem determined to reach through the decades and convince Beach she needn’t have been concerned. Her Trio, Op. 150, of 1938 appeared on their last album, Her Voice, a critical success featuring vivid performances of music by Louise Farrenc, Beach, and Rebecca Clarke. Having set the bar thus high, the trio has continued its exploration of extraordinary music written by women with A Room of Her Own. The composers represented on this most recent Chandos release are Lili Boulanger, Cécile Chaminade, Germaine Tailleferre, and Ethel Smyth.

These recordings reflect the repertoire the trio has been playing in concerts in recent seasons, and its emphasis on boosting the profiles of new or historically underappreciated voices. In addition to the composers above and the usual suspects like Brahms, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and Piazzolla, the list includes Robert Paterson (his trio and his triple concerto on the subject of climate change), Gabriela Lena Frank, Reena Esmail, Alexandra du Bois, Jennifer Higdon, and Jonah Sirota. Joan Tower’s Big Sky is on their docket, and they’re going to be premiering another trio from Higdon soon.

During a Zoom with the trio, Williams added Leah Reid and Lisa Heffter to their list of “friends who are composers who happen to be women. It’s quite an embarrassment of riches in terms of thoughtful, emotive repertoire for this medium. We’re lucky that we get to dive into it—there’s so much to explore. We’re excited that we’re playing a tiny role in expanding the repertoire, including bringing light to some historically hidden gems. We’re not into trying to say that these compositions need to be separate, but that they have a place among any and all other compositions.”

Veselov underlines the difference between premiering the work of living composers and performing pieces by composers who are no longer around. “It’s a huge responsibility to bring a new piece into the world and perform it for the first time. We try to understand the composer’s intentions and what they were trying to communicate. That’s the ultimate goal. And of course,” he quickly adds, “it’s the same when we perform pieces from the standard trio canon.”

“It’s the idea of staying curious and not taking for granted what’s on the page,” Williams continues. “It can be a beautiful thing that’s helpful, like when you approach pieces that you’ve grown up with or heard a million times, or think you have strong convictions about. I think about the idea that the composer didn’t have to write it that way, that this chord doesn’t necessarily have to go to the next. It’s finding fascination in the choices they made.”

The Neave talks about the music on their programs with energy and enthusiasm. “Of course, there’s nothing that we can say about the standard repertoire that hasn’t already been written about or explained beautifully and with incredible vocabulary,” Williams says with a laugh. “So we tend to use little tidbits that we find personal and connective in that moment. And when it’s about living composers, it’s even more lovely when they’re able to be there and share their own thoughts. It’s obviously a huge privilege having the creative mind there and with us.”


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Lili Boulanger, D’un matin de printemps

Veselov uses Lili Boulanger’s Two Pieces as an example of the importance of getting to know the composers as people. “She was very young when she wrote them—in her twenties. These were her last two pieces, D’un matin de printemps and D’un soir triste. She died soon afterwards. Keeping that in mind when hearing the hopefulness of the spring morning piece followed by the somberness of the evening piece is a moving experience.”

“We worked on it during the pandemic,“ Nakamura remembers. “It hit us, the darkness in the music was around us. It resonated.“

Both Williams and Veselov agree that the quality of the string writing is outstanding. “The depth and energy Boulanger exudes with the rhythm and then the long lyrical lines,“ Williams says, “and the depth of her harmonic progressions. She was also very cognizant of what she was doing in her writing for strings. It’s very friendly.“

“What’s most interesting,” Veselov says, “is the amount of color you can explore. And at the end of the spring morning movement, there are some really crazy passages, but if you start treating them as gestures and less as notes, it kind of goes right into your hands. It’s figuring out the idioms of each composer and understanding what they were trying to get to with their writing. It really does help with approaching each one of them separately; each one of them has their own way around the instruments. And they all obviously knew both strings and the piano very well.”

Neave Trio with instruments
The Neave Trio. Photo: Jacob Lewis Lovendahl

Veselov compares Tailleferre’s exquisitely wrought Piano Trio to Brahms’ Trio in B major—not musically, however; they are very different. But both started out as youthful works and were extensively revised by their composers almost to the point of recomposition much later in life, in the case of Tailleferre, 60 years later. “When we play it,” Williams says, “we’ll mention that half of this was written when she was mature, half was when she was very young, and the audience is usually shocked at which is which.” The two new movements in particular are masterworks.

The fact that Chaminade was a celebrated pianist drew Nakamura to the Mendelssohnian brilliance and charms of her First Piano Trio, Op. 11, and to Chaminade personally: “She was a superstar writing her own music to showcase her technique. When I play her music, I put myself in her superstar shoes and feel the moment.”


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Williams recalls the quote attributed to French composer Ambroise Thomas about Chaminade: “This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman.” She laughs. “At the time, this was considered a great compliment.”

Ethel Smyth’s Piano Trio in D minor, a work of expressive passages and expansive gestures, didn’t receive its first public performance until a century after it was written. “It’s inspired by Brahms,” Williams says, “whom she knew. We have played it on programs with Suk’s Opus 2 and Ravel.” You can also hear youthful passion in every bar. A child prodigy as both a pianist and composer, Smyth went chaperoned to Leipzig as a teenager to study. At the age of 22, she wrote this Trio.

The title of the album, A Room of Her Own, is a nod to Smyth’s close friendship and prolific correspondence with Virginia Woolf, and their existence in a restricted society. Frustrated by a lack of interest from the publishing house Breitkopf & Härtel, Smyth wrote that “a nun walled up alive in her convent would have a better chance of exercising influence than my manuscript in a cupboard.”

While the works by Chaminade and Tailleferre were published in their lifetimes, Lili Boulanger’s Two Pieces had to wait until 2007, and Smyth’s Trio was not published until the Mirecourt Trio unearthed the manuscript at the University of Durham and created a performing edition, leading to the premiere on August 30, 1985, at Grinnell College. The Mirecourt Trio’s live recording of the premiere, which is now located with the manuscript as “item 2d,” moves at a more richly Brahmsian pace than the more impulsive Neave performance—three minutes slower in the first movement alone.


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Neave Trio
The Neave Trio. Photo: Jacob Lewis Lovendahl

In his program notes, Mirecourt cellist Terry King noted the editing challenges: “An immaculate presentation of the manuscript is not possible. Many details cannot be arrived at merely by the score, yet the parts, which show evidence of some performance effort, seem to have been privy to Smyth’s last thoughts regarding notes, articulation, and dynamics. Most of these were not transferred to the piano score. There are differences between the parts as well in terms of unison and imitative expression. Rather than attempting to demonstrate endless ambiguity, we have made rational conclusions and provided brackets whenever possible to provide choices the performers may make to unify and intensify expression.”

When I ask King whether he remembers the first time he played it through, 40 years ago, he says, “Yes, we had to wade through its inconsistencies but were convinced of its intrinsic beauties; it was a long process but rewarding. It goes a long way toward establishing Smyth’s expertise as a composer of chamber music and is an important contribution to the piano trio repertoire.”

Finally, I have to ask the Neave Trio what had drawn the two string players to playing with a piano. “It’s like a beautiful play,” Williams says of the group’s chemistry, “because the roles are seemingly endless. You have the piano, this vast force that can be an orchestra at its largest, and Eri is just so amazing with her huge range from literally orchestral sound down to the most intimate solo voice. And then you have the strings; we can be a string section, we can be duos or solos, and the color options and palette that the ensemble presents seem limitless.

“And like we’ve been saying, we’ve been so fortunate that so many composers both from the past and present have put to such tremendous use the incredible, huge range of abilities that the medium has.”

Next Up

The Neave Trio’s next recording set for release is Rooted, featuring works by Suk, Smetana, Coleridge-Taylor, and Frank Martin. But, never satisfied to be standing still, the ensemble is headed for the recording studios again in July for Debussy’s La Mer arranged by Sally Beamish, Saint-Saëns’ Piano Trio No. 2, and Mel Bonis’ Soir et Matin, Op. 76. “There are still women composers represented on that album,” Veselov says, “although the theme is more about the vivid imagery that each piece conveys.” —LV