The Marsyas Trio’s A Triple Portrait presents the haunting chamber music of Russian composer Elena Firsova (b. 1950). Firsova, a student of Aleksandr Pirumov and (unofficially) Edison Denisov, moved from Moscow to London just before the fall of the Soviet Union. This disc is the first dedicated to her introspective, personal chamber music. The Marsyas Trio – named for the musical satyr – consists of Australian flute player Helen Vidovich, Canadian cellist Valerie Welbanks and New Zealand pianist Fei Ren.
The album opens with the rich sound of Welbanks’ cello in Homage to Canisy, a work inspired by the French castle, Chateau de Canisy, where the composer visits each year, and where the work had its premiere performance in 2010. The centre-piece of the album, A Triple Portrait Op. 132 – from which the disc takes its name – was commissioned by the trio in 2012. The first movement Andante rubato is purely solo flute, the Adagio a short, eloquent trickle of piano notes and the third movement opens with cello and piano, before the flute rejoins to complete the trio. A plucked, walking bass line from the cello gives the movement a smear of blues.
Vidovich and Welbanks are joined by mezzo-soprano Hannah Pedley for Night Songs, Op. 125, a setting of poetry by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in Stalin’s gulags. Mandelstam’s texts are also used in the earliest work on this disc, Three Poems by Osip Mandelstam, Op. 23, written for soprano and piano in 1980. Ren is joined by German soprano Maacha Deubner, whose full-bodied soprano soars over the piano’s plucked strings. The Spring Sonata for flute and piano is recalls Messiaen with its avian flourishes and spatterings of piano while For Slava Op. 120, a work for solo cello, is a response to the funeral of Rostropovich. The tragic, long phrases almost Shostakovichian in their pathos.
The album closes with Tender is the Sorrow, Op. 130, dedicated to the composer’s aunt. Here the Marsyas Trio is joined by violinist Patrick Dawkins (from the Ligeti Quartet) and violist Morgan Goff violist from the (Kreuzer Quartet). Dissonant, sustained string chords and mournful slides accompany a singing flute line.
This disc provides a compelling introduction to a composer whose work should be heard more often. The Marsyas Trio’s performance is refined; Vidovich’s flute playing languid and sinuous, Ren’s piano delicate and sensitive and Welbanks’ cello lends a darkness and gravitas to the sound without compromising the intimacy of the works. There are few moments of lightness on this disc – the bleak cover art painted by Philip Firsov, the composer’s son, captures the mood appropriately – but the restrained, introverted beauty of Firsova’s music is undeniable.