...polished and spirited interpretations...
— New York Times CLassical Playlist

Lysander Trio "After A Dream"

Debut CD on CAG Records

The Trio's debut recording features works by Turina, Haydn, Schubert, Ravel, and Zorman in an exploration of fantasy, imagination, and color through a nocturnal lens.


As we began collecting the program for our debut recording, we noticed that many of the works we were drawn to—across varied styles—shared the exploration of fantasy, imagination, and color. These qualities are beautifully exemplified by the trio of Maurice Ravel, which is the focal point of this album, and the surrounding works are connected to it in various ways: indebtedness to folk music (particularly Spanish), light and dark, day and night, with a special emphasis on the mysterious, dreamy nocturnal side.

We begin with an awakening: the three movements of Joaquín Turina's Círculo... are entitled Dawn – Midday – Dusk. This metaphorical "circle" of sunrise and sunset is also a musical one, as the Dusk movement ends with the reverse order of sections introduced in the Dawn movement. Turina (1882–1949) was born in Seville and studied in Madrid but quickly relocated to Paris to attend the Scola Cantorum, which offered the most rigorous training. In Paris, he met many of the greats of the day. Vincent D'Indy, his composition teacher, taught him to master cyclical forms, of which this trio is an elegant example. Debussy attended a performance of Turina's works and praised the "deliberate contrasts of light and shade" and the picturesque quality, which he compared to a "beautiful fresco." Debussy, along with Turina's countryman and mentor Isaac Albéniz, urged the young composer "to listen to more familiar voices" at home in Spain rather than follow the French avant-garde. Turina clearly took this advice, and his penchant for Spanish color and the luminous quality of the writing are on ample display in Círculo. The last of his piano trios, the piece was written in 1936, long after the composer had returned to Spain and just before the Spanish Civil War. Many of Turina's works have descriptive titles referring either to names of small towns in Andalusia or the characteristics of their people. While Círculo does not specify the location, the evocative power of the music transports us to the Iberian Peninsula, particularly in the second movement, in which the string pizzicato imitates a guitar and the strong rhythm suggests a proud Spanish dance. The outer movements explore a wide range of color from mysterious dark to Mediterranean light and back—a cycle of an entire day that sets the scene for the works that follow on this album.

Joseph Haydn's only piano trio with a programmatic title, "Jacob's Dream," is not so much a picturesque depiction as a musical practical joke. The two movements were composed at different times, and the title is placed specifically above the second movement (composed first, in 1794). In this movement, the violin part is set higher than anywhere else in Haydn's trio writing and alludes to the biblical story of Jacob's ladder, a staircase to heaven that appeared to the patriarch in a dream. According to Haydn’s early biographer Albert Dies, Haydn composed the difficult work to embarrass an amateur violinist who had annoyed him by insisting on playing in high positions despite lacking the necessary technical capacity. Haydn gave the piece to his friend, the accomplished pianist Therese Jansen, to sight read at a house performance with the unfortunate violinist. The player indeed got in trouble in the passages, and Miss Jansen proceeded to laugh at how he "now ponderously, uncertainly, stumbling, now reeling, skipping, climbed up and down the [heavenly] ladder." The piano and cello have many tongue-in-cheek moments at the violin’s expense, such as the low rumbling answers in the cello and the piano's left hand toward the end of the movement that mock the struggles of the violin. In 1795, Haydn added a first movement in the unusually dark key of E-flat minor (a key signature with as many as six flats!). A rondo with a strong element of variation, it largely stays in the middle register and the mood is melancholy, eschewing virtuoso writing. The two movements form an unlikely but complementary pair: although the second movement depicts Jacob’s dream, it is the first movement that evokes darkness of night while the second sparkles with the energy of day.

Franz Schubert's Adagio in E-flat Major received its second title "Notturno" from Anton Diabelli, who published it in 1845, long after Schubert’s death. The work was likely conceived as an alternative slow movement to the Piano Trio in B-flat Major, D. 898, but the characteristic title fits the mysterious nature of this composition. There are several unusual aspects to this work, starting at the very beginning with the enigmatic performance instruction for the pianist, pianissimo appassionato, which can be translated as a "passionate whisper." As in several slow movements from his later works, Schubert employs juxtapositions between highly contrasting sections. Here, the whispering opening is answered by a second theme in a fortissimo dynamic, in a remote key area (the “Neapolitan”), and in a different meter (triple, compared to the opening duple). The emotional effect is the impression of two different worlds existing at the same time— perhaps the outside world contrasting with an inner, private emotional world. The sections alternate twice before closing with the opening theme. Each time when the first theme returns, it is subtly developed with a more agitated piano accompaniment, perhaps a reaction to memories of the more dramatic middle section. Although the outer and inner worlds are distinctly different, they cannot be completely separate, as they inevitably affect one another.

Ravel's Piano Trio was composed mainly during the summer of 1914 in the seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a favorite vacation spot of the composer in the Basque region, near the Spanish border and close to where Ravel was born. In June 1914, Ravel wrote: "It's at least 95 degrees here, and for relief I'm working on the trio...despite numerous diversions: Basque pelota [a popular ball game], local fireworks, toros de fuego [a festive activity involving a metal bull and fireworks], and other pyrotechnics." Both of these elements found a place in the trio: the Basque traditions in the first movement and the fireworks in the last. Ravel himself said that the two themes of the first movement are based on the rhythm of a Basque zortzico, a dance or song in an irregular meter, here 8/8 divided into 5/8 + 3/8. The melancholic lilt of the melodies carries through the entire movement in colorful, evocative harmonizations. After building to powerful climaxes, the movement slows down in precisely calibrated tempo changes until just a drumbeat in the piano’s left hand remains at the end.

The title of the second movement, Pantoum, refers to a poetic form of Malayan origin popular among French symbolist poets in which two contrasting ideas are developed simultaneously. Ravel’s two ideas are a scherzando theme that opens the movement and a waltz that follows shortly after. The themes continue to develop in quick alternation, a masterful feat given their different rhythmic characters. In the middle section, yet another contrasting theme is added to the mix: the piano’s slow-moving chords. Ravel’s brilliant combination of these disparate elements in this section requires the strings and piano to be notated in two different time signatures. The movement ends in a climax in which the two primary themes finally sound simultaneously.
The third movement, entitled Passacaille, alludes to the Baroque variation form, and Ravel’s evocation of a long-distant past is enhanced by the modal quality of the melody. It opens and closes with the piano’s left hand alone, presenting an eight-bar theme in the lowest possible register. Whereas a Baroque passacaglia repeats the bass theme continuously with variations entering above, Ravel's variations are presented as (in his words) "distortions or developments of this unique theme.” The dark character may betray the sense of despair in the build-up to WWI, the period during which much of the trio was conceived. (The manuscript is dated five days after France officially entered the war, and Ravel rushed to complete it so that he could enlist as soon as possible.)

The darkness of the Passacaille is answered by the brightness of the Final, which opens in a brilliant register with violin harmonics and cello trills. The piano enters with a reminder of the first movement, only with the theme now cast in major and inverted (beginning with a rising rather than falling step). In a possible evocation of the fireworks of St. Jean-de-Luz, the movement grows to two massive climaxes of an orchestral scope theretofore unprecedented in piano-trio writing. A master orchestrator, Ravel spares no expense, using trills, tremolos, and glissandi in the strings as well as passagework and thick chords in the piano to create a satisfying finale to a most impressive work.
Writing for piano trio poses a challenging puzzle for many composers, owing to the three instruments’ disparate characters. Ravel's trio surpasses previous works in this genre in reconciling light and darkness, transparency and fullness, collaboration and independence, construction and inspiration. As he famously wrote to Maurice Delage before beginning to work on the trio: "My trio is finished. I only need the themes for it." The trio became one of a handful of undisputed masterpieces of chamber music. He never wrote a second one—he didn't need to.

— Liza Stepanova

Yemenite Fantasy is based on an original tune from the music of Jewish Yemenite women. The musical treatment emphasizes both the expressive melodic line and the rhythmic patterns of original Yemenite music. The source material was a lone melody with some percussion accompaniment. Transforming it to a western trio ensemble required the addition of harmonic and contrapuntal ideas. Some sense of freedom and improvisation which are a part of the eastern world is also kept in this colorful piece.

— Moshe Zorman