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First Play: Valérie Milot, Antoine Bareil and Stéphane Tétreault, Trios

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Robert Rowat

Harpist Valérie Milot is like a hummingbird, delighting you with each appearance, and before you know it, moving on to the next thing. Her new album, due out Sept. 22, is a case in point.

We were still in the thrall of Milot's 2016 release, Orbis, when Analekta Records sent us an advance copy of Trios for Violin, Cello and Harp, an equally captivating recital of chamber music by Jacques Ibert and Henriette Renié.

Not all record labels will greenlight such obscure repertoire. "My history with Analekta has always been in tune with my aspirations," Milot tells us. "They've been supportive since the beginning of my career and considered my discography as an ensemble with elements that enlighten different aspects of my career — solo, chamber music, different styles and eras, etc. I’m glad they are open to crazy ideas."

As with many of Milot's projects, this one is not only a bit crazy, but also highly personal — a collaboration with her husband, violinist Antoine Bareil, and her longtime friend, cellist Stéphane Tétreault. "Stéphane is one of those great musicians with no filter between the person he is in real life and the artist he is onstage," reflects Milot. "The channel is always broad and pure!"

Their complicity is apparent from the outset in Ibert's Trio for Violin, Cello and Harp. He composed it in 1944 for his daughter Jacqueline, a harpist, who promised her father cigarettes (scarce in war-torn France) in return for the work.

The nicotine evidently worked wonders. "Ibert’s trio is a gem of subtleties and details, like a beautiful piece of lace," reflects Milot, who enjoyed the challenge of working on such complex music with Bareil and Tétreault. "The three movements are quite different — I have a soft spot for the second."

The combination of violin, cello and harp isn't all that common, and cellist Tétreault feels the harp contributes to an especially intimate sound. "The colours and ambiances are stunning and delicate," he tells us. "The variety of sound is also great, as it is possible to achieve a certain 'percussive' quality with a harp, perhaps even more so than with a piano."

Rachmaninoff of the harp

As far as slash careerists go, harpist/composers are not as rare as you might think. "[They're] a common phenomenon in the harp world, as our instrument is often [neglected] by composers," explains Milot. "Henriette Renié is somehow our Sergei Rachmaninoff. She was a very brilliant harpist who wanted to prove how powerful and convincing the harp can be."

Renié's four-movement, highly virtuosic Trio exploits all the harp's expressive possibilities. "I always love to play her music, as it challenges me as a musician and gives me a wonderful playground to express intense feelings." A bit old-fashioned for its time, according to Milot, Renie's compositional style is Romantic, tonal and favours efficient structures. "There are some fabulous climaxes," she's quick to add.

In addition to Ibert and Renié's Trios, the album include's Johan Halvorsen's arrangement for violin and cello of the Passacaglia from Handel's Keyboard suite No. 7 — a seven-minute breather for Milot following Renié's devilish Danse des lutins for solo harp. The record concludes with a trio transcription of a Schubert Lied.

This album proves yet again the stellar work of Carl Talbot, Analekta Records' house producer and recording engineer. "Carl is always so aware of the musical score and makes sure that we express our best qualities as musicians," says Milot. "I’m glad he was able to find the perfect balance with the boys' powerful instruments and my harp — Antoine plays on a Vuillaume and Stéphane on a Stradivarius."

Trios for Violin, Cello and Harp will be released on Sept. 22. You can pre-order it here.

More to explore:

Watch Couloir play music by Saint-Saëns and Villa-Lobos

30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30, 2017 edition