ZIMMERLI: Piano Trios: Nos. 1, 2

ZIMMERLI Piano Trios: Nos. 1, 2 • Scott Yoo (vn), Michael Mermagen (vc), John Novacek (pn) • ARABESQUE Z6785 (62:29)

This recent release is my first encounter with the name and music of Patrick Zimmerli. The notes accompanying the recording offer little biographical or background information, but a bit of research on the Internet reveals that he was born in 1968 in New York City, and graduated from Columbia University, where he studied with Fred Lerdahl. It appears that he is somewhat better known as a jazz saxophonist than as a composer of “concert music;” and his website offers a backdrop of static “sonic environment”-type music. But neither of these conceptual strands suggests the music found on the compact disc submitted for review.

Having listened several times now to both these piano trios, I must say that they are simply sensational! Both works were composed between the years 2001-03, and they are similar enough that my reactions really apply to both of them more or less equally. (Presumably, differences will emerge with greater familiarity.) To begin with the basics: Each work comprises four movements and lasts approximately half an hour. Both strongly reflect a derivation in the ethos, aesthetics, rhetoric, and general style of the piano trios of Brahms: strongly potent statements that seem to reach beyond the intimate composure of conventional classical chamber music to a near-symphonic grandeur, while retaining a strong connection to their classical formal roots. This gives the music a much more conservative profile than that of, say, Paul Moravec, another excellent traditionalist composer championed by Arabesque and recently discussed in these pages. Zimmerli’s own program notes speak of his mixing classical and jazz idioms in both works, but I don’t hear it that way at all. To my ears, he has simply infused his language with many of the developments in harmony that evolved during the 20th century. Let me hasten to add that this is to its distinct advantage: I have always found jazz-classical hybrids—especially those with elevated pretensions, that alternate back and forth between the two poles—to be contrived, self-conscious, and exceedingly tedious gimmicks—more concerned with their concept than with their substance. I suppose one might point to Zimmerli’s expanded harmonic language as overlapping somewhat with the language of jazz, and I guess he must see it that way; but it is all thoroughly integrated into one very cogent means of expression. 

Both trios start with sonata allegro movements of tremendous emotional force and unflagging urgency, while the subsequent movements maintain an extraordinarily high level of interest. The music is motivically driven, contrapuntally strong, melodically generous, and vigorously rhythmic. The instrumental writing shows great proficiency (the scherzo of Trio No. 2 is a dazzling workout for the violinist). Both works offer wholly satisfying musical experiences that leave one eager to learn what else this relatively young composer has to offer. Not to be overlooked is the quality of the performances, which feature the members of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, who commissioned and premiered both works. They play with technical brilliance, emotional exuberance, and whole-hearted conviction. Highly recommended.