In Trios From the City of Big Shoulders, the Lincoln Trio dusts off overlooked Chicago chamber works | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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In Trios From the City of Big Shoulders, the Lincoln Trio dusts off overlooked Chicago chamber works

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It’s Leo Sowerby’s summer. Had 2020 gone as planned, musicians across the city likely would have launched into 125th-anniversary celebrations for the late Chicago composer (1895–1968) and onetime St. James Cathedral organist. Any such plans were obviously tabled, but luckily for us, quasquicentennial recordings of Sowerby’s chamber works are nonetheless bubbling to the top of Cedille Records’ catalog, starting with this Lincoln Trio album (and continuing with his Organ Symphony in G on July 9 and his symphonic jazz forays on August 13). On Trios From the City of Big Shoulders, Sowerby shares top billing with one of his contemporaries, Chicago-born composer Ernst Bacon (1898–1990). Over the course of their decades-long careers, both men racked up classical music’s pearliest accolades: between them they share one Rome Prize, two Pulitzer nods, and three Guggenheims. Today, if either composer is known at all, it’s for his vocal repertoire—Sowerby for his church music, Bacon for his 200-plus songs. Their instrumental works remain woefully under-recorded: Lincoln’s recording of Bacon’s Piano Trio No. 2 (1987) is an industry first, and their release of Sowerby’s sole piano trio (1953) is only the second by a commercial label. Written three years before Bacon’s death, Trio No. 2 treads churning harmonic waters before settling into something like a career retrospective. In the span of six movements, Bacon lifts melodies from two of his own songs and swerves between brusque marches, revue-style romps, and angular Romanticism. The collage never quite coheres, but that’s no slight to the Lincoln Trio’s spirited, scintillant interpretation. Nor, frankly, is it a slight to the piece, which like a roller-coaster ride renders pleasure and whiplash indistinguishable from each other. Old and new meld more organically in Sowerby’s trio: while structurally traditional, the dark-hued, quietly radical work, with its harmonic brambles and idiosyncratic doublings in violin and cello, seems to have come from an entirely different pen than Sowerby’s church music. But when the strings decouple in the second movement, the heavens beckon. In one breathtaking passage, cellist David Cunliffe arpeggiates under the soaring treble line of violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, while pianist Marta Aznavoorian plants pillar-like chords in the firmament. Surely there is a touch of the sacred here too.   v

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