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Icicle Creek Piano Trio - Haydn/Turina/Shostakovich

Gramophone Magazine, May 2011

Icicle’s spreading WARMTH - Shostakovich given a bittersweet emotional charge

Elegance absorbed in this new take on Shostakovich’s highly charged Trio

by Laurence Vittes

Curiously tucked away on a disc that begins with innocuous Haydn and some marvelous Turina, the Icicle Creek Piano Trio uses elegance of tone and grace of line and texture to give the composer’s bitter music, written on the death of his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, a bittersweet emotional charge.

The famously treacherous and vividly expressive harmonics, which open the piece, instead of being ghostly let alone eerie, are played with a transforming sweep of gossamer beauty. No less absorbing is the merging of the strings with the throbbing lines of the Moderato. After a gloriously healthy Allegro non troppo, in which pianist Oksana Ezhokina is spotlighted in her beetle-like pursuit of Shostakovish’s endless semiquavers, the Largo is strong and forthright in an oddly sexy way and the Allegretto struts, swaggers and soars as only the Russian soul dares, more affirmation than tragedy, more human love and less political context.

The Trio takes its name from the Icicle Creek music centre in Leavenworth, Washington, one of those Shangri-La-cum-Northern Exposure wilderness places. The wonderful sound, rich and powerful low down and spreading warmth as the frequency and dynamic ranges grow, was record not in Leavenworth but at Butterfly Productions in Seattle. The sound in the Turina, which is particularly gorgeous, loves lots of volume.

Fanfare Magazine, 2010

by Jerry Dubins

HAYDN Piano Trio in E, Hob XV:28.
TURINA Circulo—Fantasy for Piano Trio, op. 91.
SHOSTAKOVICH Piano Trio in e, op. 67

Icicle Creek Piano Trio CON BRIO RECORDS 21048 (52:49)

Back in 32:5 I welcomed an album by the Icicle Creek Piano Trio on the specialty audiophile label Con Brio Records, an enterprise founded by Carol Greenley (whom I’d interviewed in 32:4) and her husband Ed Hollcraft. That release, containing piano trios by Schubert and Ravel, earned some of the highest accolades I’ve ever accorded a new CD in my years with this journal, and, not unexpectedly, it topped my 2009 Want List. That recording was, if I’m not mistaken, taped at the Canyon Wren Concert Hall in Leavenworth, Washington’s Icicle Creek Music Center, where the trio is the ensemble in residence and from which institution it obviously takes its name. For those who may not know, Leavenworth is a picturesque, touristy community done up to resemble a Bavarian village and situated near the eastern edge of Washington State’s Cascade mountain range about 80 miles due east of Seattle. This new release was recorded at a different venue, the ButterflyProduction.com Studio in Seattle, in February, 2010. The Icicle Creek Trio’s members are Jennifer Caine, violin; Sally Singer, cello; and Oksana Ezhokia, piano.

As complement to its previous album, the Icicle Creek ensemble gives us three contrasting piano trios that are not only quite different from each other and from the earlier recorded Schubert and Ravel trios but, in the case of two of them—the Haydn and Turina—I’d venture not that familiar. True, Haydn’s piano trios—all 45 of them—have been essayed on disc before, most notably perhaps by the Beaux Arts Trio in its 1970s groundbreaking cycle for Philips.

There are those who will say, though I’m not one of them, that if you’ve heard one Haydn trio you’ve heard them all, and that unless you’ve played them yourself or have a very sharp memory for detail, you’re not as likely to experience that “aha” moment of recognition as you are with other works by the composer that exhibit a more immediately distinctive profile. But the E-Major Trio, Hob XV:28, is one of the composer’s more frequently recorded trios, and if you acquired either the Florestan Trio’s version, reviewed as recently as 33:4 by Christopher Brodersen, or the Ensemble Trazom’s period instrument performance reviewed in 27:4 by James H. North, you are more likely than not to find the piece familiar. Moreover, it’s one of Haydn’s last works in the medium. Written in London in 1794–95 and dedicated to the talented pianist Thérèse Jansen, it contains some of the composer’s most advanced harmonic and contrapuntal writing. The E-Minor Allegretto built over a passacaglia-like bass line is especially unusual. It was only in these last trios that Haydn began to break away from the accepted understanding of the piano trio as a piano sonata with violin and cello accompaniment. It wasn’t until the string instruments were liberated from their supporting role and the piano began to give up its dominant position in the hierarchy that the piano trio came into its own in the hands of Beethoven.

Joaquin Turina’s piano trio titled Circulo has also had its fair share of recordings. A few have been reviewed in these pages—see the Fanfare archive under both “Turina” and “Turína,” but apparently not my longtime favorite with the Beaux Arts Trio on a Philips CD that includes the composer’s two other piano trios plus a trio by Granados. That performance of the Circulo Trio, wonderful as it is, must now cede pride of place to this new one by the Icicle Creek Trio which plays the piece as if spellbound by its mood painting. In three short movements—one might wish they were longer—Turina’s rapturous writing is intended to capture the changing sky colors and climates of the day—“Dawn,” “Midday,” and “Dusk.”

I don’t think it will upset too many readers if I say that Shostakovich’s E-Minor Trio is the greatest piano trio of the 20th-century. Some 75 recordings of the piece tend to support that opinion. But such fierce competition also makes it difficult for the Icicle Creek Trio—indeed, for any ensemble relatively new to the scene—to mark its territory amid the pack. But I can honestly say that the ICT’s Shostakovich is another award winning performance that, in my opinion, demotes even the best of the rest to second class.

The cello’s artificial harmonics at the beginning of the first movement shimmer like hoar-frost, as silvery as I’ve ever heard them. The entrances exchanged between the instruments in the second movement—one of those backbiting, nose-thumbing Shostakovich scherzos—are so perfectly timed and balanced, they’re like the workings of a Swiss watch. And those curling-iron, hairpin swells and diminuendos throughout are discharged like so much flatulence to pollute the air with gaseous gossip. The sullen, bleak tragedy of the Largo is given voice by Shostakovich in the form of that age-old lament composers from earliest times expressed in the falling progression of the chaconne. And here in the ICT’s performance, one hears the underlying foundation in stark relief. In the concluding Allegretto, never have I heard any ensemble make more of the dynamic contrasts or differentiate as sharply as the ICT does between various pizzicato techniques, some soft and fleshy, others hard and percussive.

I’ve counted other versions of the Shostakovich among my favorites—those by the Kempf, Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson, Jupiter Trios, and an Erato recording with Repin, Berezovsky, and Yablonsky—but this is simply one fantastic performance, and it would earn my strongest recommendation even if the Shostakovich were the only work on the disc. But it’s not. The Turina is wonderful too, in different ways of course, and the Haydn is given a polished and spirited reading. Con Brio’s latest Icicle Creek Piano Trio album is a must for all chamber music lovers.

AllMusic March 2011

by James Manheim

Not out of nowhere, but certainly out of a location far from the usual centers of fine chamber music, comes the Icicle Creek Piano Trio, headquartered at the Icicle Creek Music Center in the eastern part of the U.S. state of Washington. It is thus a double pleasure to be able to report the creation of an absolutely superb disc of chamber music -- and one, moreover, whose virtues lie in the realm of exceptional technique and insightful interpretation rather than in some unusual innovation. This is just one of those rare chamber music recordings that draw you in immediately with their sensitivity and execution: sample the opening of the late Haydn Piano Trio in E major, Hob. 15/28, with its playful little arpeggio on the piano that mimics the attack of the strings. The odd central movement of this trio, with its walking, continuo-like bass line, is taken at a brisk clip that brings out an unusual implacable quality. The Dawn, Midday, and Sunset movements of Joaquín Turina's Círculo, Op. 91 (the last of these a lovely portrayal of busy evening streets receding to quiet), are extraordinarily evocative. And the trio does not flag in the most substantial work on the program, the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67, increasingly looking like one of the absolute masterpieces of twentieth century chamber music. Composed in 1944, just as Nazi atrocities against European Jews were coming fully to light, the work is suffused with Jewish inflections. Violinist Jennifer Caine delivers superior tragic melody in the slow movement. The Allegretto finale is a tour de force, atomizing a theme reminiscent of Fiddler on the Roof into motives and then building up to a conclusion of Beethovenian depth. Not a single detail is lost here. The sound, frequently a problem with small independent releases, comes from a studio in Seattle and does a good job of staying out of the performers' way. Highest possible recommendation. The designer who took the lines of the UPC code, that little piece of colonization from the commercial realm, and turned them into note stems also deserves recognition. The booklet notes, by Caine, are in English only.

San Francisco Classical Voice

A Cakewalk For Icicle


The Icicle Creek Piano Trio — Oksana Ezhokina (piano), Jennifer Caine (violin), and Sally Singer (cello) — is an ensemble new to me, but one I’ll be following closely in future. Its new disc on the Con Brio label, of Haydn, Turina, and Shostakovich (its second CD), reveals an ensemble that can cover a lot of stylistic ground without missing a beat.

I admit to being slightly disappointed in the Haydn. This trio (in E major, Hob. XV:28) is one of the more eccentric works in a genre where Haydn gave his imagination even freer rein than he did elsewhere, and the Icicle Creek players regularize it a bit too much for my taste. The slow movement — a passacaglia, most of which is solo piano, the right hand wandering octaves over a sepulchral bass line — sounds altogether too healthy and sane here. And there is more fun to be gotten out of the finale than this trio finds.

I admire, though, the players’ attentiveness to balance and texture. The first movement’s opening — little rolled grace notes in the piano, pizzicato in the strings — is the kind of thing that’s a lot easier to bring off with a fortepiano and gut strings; here it sounds as natural as I’ve ever heard it on modern instruments. And Singer, a constant and unfailingly attentive presence, doesn’t mistake her role for that of an equal partner in what is really a piano-plus.

That Singer’s reticence in the Haydn is discretion (rather than lack of power) we find out rapidly in the rest of the program. Joaquín Turina’s 1942 Circulo, the last of his four piano trios, is one of those pieces you find yourself wondering why you haven’t heard before, so immediately attractive is the music. The reasons, I’d guess, are partly Turina’s relative obscurity and partly plain logistics: Where on a program do you put a 10-minute trio?

The piece is in three brief movements, depicting dawn, midday, and dusk. Turina is evidently most Spanish in direct sunlight; at early morning and twilight, he might almost be mistaken for Ravel. The opening movement’s expansion toward sunlit glory is an amazing thing to be packed into four minutes, and the sunset is also glorious, not Technicolor but superbly muted.

As for the Shostakovich Op. 67 Trio that takes up the balance of the disc, I suppose I’ve heard it played as well, but not often. Caine and Singer are in eerie accord all the time, matching timbres and dynamics with what appears almost casual perfection. Singer’s opening harmonics are inhumanly clean and pure. Ezhokina is simply magnificent everywhere; you get the impression that she can put out any amount of power and still maintain perfect clarity.

The performance’s flaw is that sometimes it doesn’t seem hard enough work. It’s not natural to sail through the Shostakovich’s brutal F-sharp-major scherzo so elegantly; the thing’s obviously designed purposefully to sound ugly, and in all its early recordings, it does. There is, alas, such a thing as doing stuff too well.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.

Icicle Creek Piano Trio - Ravel/Schubert

Fanfare Magazine, May 2009

by Jerry Dubins

RAVEL Piano Trio in a, SCHUBERT Piano Trio in E-flat

Icicle Creek Pn Tr • CON BRIO 28453 (68:07)
Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor, Schubert: Piano Trio in E-flat
Con Brio Recordings

Long before I was a Fanfare contributor, I was a loyal reader, as I still am; and as a reader, one of my petty grievances against all such review journals—whether of recordings or of audio equipment—was, and still is, the predictable supersession of “bests” from one issue to the next. If, for example, on the recommendation of the audio critic, you run out and buy the $10,000 reference series Golden Ear amplifier, you can count on another audio critic, or perhaps even the same one, telling you in the next issue that the $12,000 Platinum Ear amplifier is even better. And so, having invested a goodly portion of your life’s savings on the first recommendation, you now feel your investment bested and devalued. It’s the same with recordings, and as a party to the never-ending game of one-upmanship, I am as guilty as others are in constantly upping the ante. The two fixed constants in this are that (1) there never was, and there never will be, such a thing as a “definitive” performance of anything; and (2) serious music-lovers and collectors will never end their quest for the “definitive” performance of a favorite work, which is why we acquire the same piece over and over again, performed by different artists, ensembles, and conductors.

I offer this preamble as an apology, for I am about to tell you that any past recommendations I may have made for recordings of Schubert’s E-flat Major Piano Trio are hereby rendered null and void by this new release. The performance by the Icicle Creek Trio comes as close to being “definitive” as any I expect to hear in my lifetime. However, before you run out and buy it on my say-so, I must note one issue that will undoubtedly be viewed as a fatal flaw by sticklers for repeats. The Icicle Creek Trio bypasses the lengthy repeat of the first movement exposition. I am not as bothered by this in some of Schubert’s works—his piano trios and Ninth Symphony, for example—as I am by such omissions in works with shorter expositions and less repetitious material. But this is a personal quirk.

If you can get past this one shortcoming, you will find a performance that transcends all the usual plaudits of pitch-perfect intonation, ideal pacing, polished ensemble playing, and even interpretive insight and musical intelligence. There is something both magical and exalted happening here, a communing of spirits so sensitive and responsive to every nuance of expression that three souls merge into one, and only one voice is heard: Schubert’s. It may be an odd way to describe a musical performance, but I felt as though a reading this beautiful should only exist in an otherworldly state of moral perfection and pure grace.

In a 32:4 interview with Carol Greenley of Con Brio Records, I engaged her in a conversation about the company she and her husband founded, about their recording philosophy and methodologies, their roster of artists, their repertoire, and the difficulties of keeping a small business afloat in these troubled economic times. The piece did not involve a review of any of their CDs, as none was sent, nor had I heard any up to that time. So this is the first Con Brio release I’ve had an opportunity to audition, and I would have to say that the otherworldly state of moral perfection and pure grace I alluded to above may have as much to do with the recording as it does with the Icicle Creek Trio. I cannot tell you in technical terms what engineer/producer/editor Al Swanson has done, or even, for that matter, with any certainty what the February 2008 venue for the recording was (I assume it was the Canyon Wren Concert Hall in Leavenworth, Washington’s Icicle Creek Music Center, where the trio is the ensemble in residence), because none of this information is provided on the jewel case’s back-plate or in the rather skimpy enclosed booklet note. I’m not even sure if the recording was made during a live performance or following one in which the same program was presented. But the results are astonishing. Without a doubt, this recording captures the stage in one of the most transparent, lifelike sonic images I’ve yet to hear. It’s as if the musicians, having been teleported from the recording session, simply materialize in my living room.

Equally astonishing is the fact that this is the Icicle Creek Trio’s debut album, though they are already seasoned players, having toured in Austria, Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K.; and having performed in venues such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alice Tully Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, Benaroya Hall in Seattle, and Davies Hall in San Francisco. Members of the group hail from the U.S. (violinist Jennifer Caine), the U.K. (cellist Sally Singer), and Russia (pianist Oksana Ezhokina).

It has not been my intent to give short shrift to Ravel’s 1914 A-Minor Piano Trio that leads off the disc. It is probably his most significant chamber music work, after his F-Major String Quartet, a conclusion borne out at least by the attention it has received on disc. Faced with the same dilemma of instrumental blend and balance that perplexed Tchaikovsky in his one and only piano trio, coincidentally in the same key, Ravel extends the coloristic effects he employed in his earlier quartet—such as glissandos, harmonics, and arpeggios—to differentiate the voices. Additionally, he separates the violin and cello by two or more octaves and “sandwiches” the piano between them in order to overcome the common problem of keyboard dominance. Everything I’ve said above about the Icicle Trio’s playing and recording in the Schubert applies in the Ravel. This is a chamber ensemble I look forward to hearing soon in much more of the mainstream piano trio repertoire. A five-star recommendation.

American Record Guide - March/April 2009

By Gil French

Ravel: Trio; Schubert: Trio 2
Icicle Creek Trio

Con Brio 28453 – 68 minutes (925-689-3444)

Don't judge people by their names–this is a wonderful album! It even made me take delight in the Schubert, a work that usually drives me out of the room.

After not even five seconds, I was aware of this group's exquisitely bright tuning and the gentle atmosphere they create for Ravel's impressionist masterpiece. After repeating the opening phrase at a leisurely pace, they give a delicate surge of energy to the first theme before slightly retreating into the ineffably lovely second theme, as the cello in tenor range plays counterpoint to the violin, and the pianist gently generates waves of arpeggios. These three ladies–violinist Jennifer Caine, cellist Sally Singer, and pianist Oksana Ezhokina, all based in the Seattle area–also know how to linger without stagnating. The strings (they have gorgeous-sounding instruments) play absolutely seamless lines except when they deliberately create a new phrase; their use of vibrato is so selective that it took about 15 minutes before I became aware of how cleverly they employ it. Sometimes the cellist becomes "tone color with a pulse" rather than a soloist. And the piano: its tone is so rich, yet its textures are so clear and its melodies so bell-like–all made possible by the excellent balance and integration of the three players by Al Swanson, the engineer who made so many of those Seattle Symphony recordings for Delos.

I had just finished being tortured by a new recording of the Schubert with Philip Setzer, David Finckel, and Wu Han (see SCHUBERT, this issue) where something in either the engineering or the mastering process went horribly wrong, when I had to sit down and listen to the work all over again. Quelle surprise! The opening Allegro here is bright, light, fleet; the piano is rippling; and the results are gorgeously shaded. The development has almost the sway of a waltz and is extraordinarily sweet–so preferable to a forced pounding approach that can make it seem interminable. The nuances that open II add poignant touches to its walking tune; each crescendo and decrescendo is treated poetically, each dotted note is given a buoyant lift, and the Piu Lento coda is a touch of heaven. The main section of the canonic Scherzo is light and tripping, while its trio is given the neatest touch of swagger. In the final Allegro the players are also careful to observe the Moderato direction, giving the style enough of a "kid's touch" for it to have playfulness (otherwise it can be deadly). I must confess, though, that not even the Icicle Creek Piano Trio could make the endless series of repetitions that go on for page after page seem like anything other than something written by a 19th Century Karl Jenkins.

Go ahead and disagree with my opinions of the Schubert trio. This is one album that is absolutely worth having.

---Gil French

Gramophone Magazine April 2009

by Donald Rosenberg

Two contrasting discs illustrate how music is open to a universe of interpretive possibility

Ravel - Schubert
Icicle Creek Piano Trio

Reviewed with Schubert Piano Trio Nos. 1 and 2 with Philip Setzer, vn, David Finckel, vc, and Wu Han, pno

The concept that the Icicle creek Piano Trio take in D929 is more compact, marked by fine intimacy of attack and interplay. Never mind the cool implication of the ensemble's name, which stems from the Icicle Creek Music Center in Leavenworth, WA, where these musicians are in residence. The playing is warmly considered, meticulous in articulation and blend, and silken in sonority. Violinist Jennifer Caine, cellist Sally Singer, and pianist Oksana Ezhokina gauge Schubert's brooding lines with affecting subtlety. They emphasise the music's contrasts of light and dark within a true chamber-music context, as if they're seated in the room feet away from your ears.

The Icicle Creek musicians pair Schubert with Ravel's Piano Trio, which they limn in shadings of exquisite sheen and vibrancy. The score's mysterious radiance receives as much attention as the sweeping activity. Icy it most definitely is not.

Strad Magazine April 2009

by David Denton

Ravel Piano Trio in A minor
Schubert Piano Trio in E flat Major, D929

Icicle Creek Piano Trio
Con Brio Recordings CBR 28453 (www.conbriorecordings.com)

Formed by prizewinning soloists from the US, Russia, and the UK, this technically accomplished trio is resident at the Icicle Creek Music Center in Leavenworth, Washington, and much of its career is built in North America.

For their debut on disc, the players have bravely chosen works already over-subscribed in the present catalogue. They catch all the subtle, shimmering shades of the Ravel Trio, but this is essentially a young, virile and robust view of the score. I particularly enjoyed the piano's spiky introduction to a second movement that is illuminated by brilliant flashes of light.

By contrast the Passacaille has that nice, languid feeling of a midday reverie, eased forward on gentle movement. I expected a greater degree of outgoing virtuosity in the finale, but it is still elegant and sprightly, only lacking elemental power in the closing passages.

Their approach to the Schubert is literal and free of those mannerisms that have become encrusted on the work over the years. Tempos are true to the essence of the music, with a real walking gait to the second movement forming the backdrop to a beautifully played cello solo.

The Scherzando is pleasing, but again the finale is a little underpowered. The characterful account from the Florestan Trio (Hyperion) remains my top choice, but if this coupling appeals, the performance won't fail to please.

The recording quality is excellently balanced and the overall sound is most agreeable.

Seattle Times article:

Praise from far and near for Leavenworth's own Icicle Creek Piano Trio

The Icicle Creek Piano Trio's debut recording of works by Ravel and Schubert wins high praise. The trio plays at Seattle's Town Hall on May 30, 2009.

By Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times arts writer

The Icicle Creek Piano Trio is made up of Jennifer Caine (violin), Oksana Ezhokina (piano), Sally Singer (cello). For more on the group, including excerpts from their new CD, go to www.iciclecreekpianotrio.com.

The recorded evidence is in. And the verdict is: Perfecto!

The debut CD by Leavenworth's Icicle Creek Piano Trio — the Icicle Creek Music Center's ensemble-in-residence, which visits Seattle's Town Hall Saturday — pairs two high points of the piano trio repertoire: Ravel's Trio for piano, violin and cello and Schubert's Piano Trio No. 2 in E Flat, Op. 100. The recording, released on Con Brio Recordings (www.conbriorecordings.com), a boutique classical-music label, is winning impressive praise in a number of places.

Jerry Dubins in Fanfare Magazine wrote, "Any past recommendations I may have made for recordings of Schubert's E-flat Major Piano Trio are hereby rendered null and void by this new release. The performance by the Icicle Creek Trio comes as close to being 'definitive' as any I expect to hear in my lifetime."

Gil French in American Record Guide praised the strings' "absolutely seamless lines" and subtle, selective use of vibrato on the Ravel, while singling out the CD's piano sound: "Its tone is so rich, yet its textures are so clear and its melodies so bell-like — all made possible by the excellent balance and integration of the three players by Al Swanson, the engineer who made so many of those Seattle Symphony recordings for Delos."

The praise is well deserved. On the Ravel, the pointillistic precision of Jennifer Caine (violin), Oksana Ezhokina (piano) and Sally Singer (cello) has an etched-in-gossamer vibrancy. The phrasing is lilting and elastic where need be, endowed with a lithe ferocity where called for. The recording quality is so pristine, almost stark, that it lets you hear details hazy in other recorded performances.

The Schubert is just as good. In the second movement, Andante Con Moto (what we call the "Barry Lyndon" theme around our house), Caine, Ezhokina and Singer deliver a stately, angular elegance to chilling, ravishing effect. In the twining, scampering counterpoint of the Scherzando: Allegro Moderato, they couldn't be more trippingly playful.

Seattle music lovers will hear the trio play different pieces at Town Hall Saturday. The program includes Circulo, Op. 91 by Spanish composer Joaquin Turina, Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 17, by Clara Schumann and another landmark of the piano trio repertoire: Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67.

The Icicle Creek Piano Trio, whose current lineup came together in 2007, have toured widely, both as an ensemble and as soloists, in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. In Leavenworth, they stage concerts at the Icicle Creek Music Center's Canyon Wren Concert Hall throughout the year. They'll also be hosting this summer's Icicle Creek Chamber Music Festival from July 12-Aug. 2 — a good reason to make the trip up Highway 2.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company