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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47)
Piano Trio No 1 in D minor, Op 49
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Piano Trio in E minor, Op 90 ‘Dumky’
Beaux Arts Trio: Daniel Hope (violin), Antonio Meneses (cello); Menahem Pressler (piano)
recorded by Teldex Studio Berlin at the Frits Philips Muziekcentrum, Eindhoven, 31 January - 2 February 2004
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61492-2 [66'54"]

This disc celebrates fifty years of the Beaux Arts Trio, whose very first LP, made in 1954, included the Mendelssohn D minor Trio recorded here. Of course the trio’s membership has changed over the years, though the pianist (Menahem Pressler, 82 this year) is one of the originals. The original violinist, Daniel Guilet, retired in 1969, to be replaced by Isidore Cohen and (more recently, in turn) Ani Kavafian and Dong-Suk Kang. The original cellist, Bernard Greenhouse, was succeeded by Peter Wiley. And we now have the British violinist Daniel Hope and the Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses to complete the line-up.

The Mendelssohn Trio is the kind of piece that divides the composer’s admirers from his detractors. And there are probably more of the latter in 2004 than there were in 1954: such is the nature of fashion and taste! Few would dispute that it’s full of dynamic energy and memorable melodic ideas. Typically, it’s beautifully and expertly written and, as so often with Mendelssohn’s best music, it shows a strong grasp of structure. But those who object to Mendelssohn’s four-square phrases and his ‘facility’ - his tendency to triviality - do (potentially…) have a heyday here.

Several of Dvořák’s large-scale pieces incorporated a dumka - a Ukrainian (not Czech) dance: among them, the Fifth Symphony, the Violin Concerto, the E flat Quartet, and the A major Piano Quintet and Sextet. The E minor Piano Trio is different in that all six movements feature components of the dumka - or Dvořák’s customised version of it! Each movement comprises a slow dance leading into a fast one: so the piece is brim full of some of composer’s most melancholy music, as well as some of his most exciting.

There’s much beautiful playing here: it’s polished and musical, with (distinguished soloists though Hope and Meneses are) a clear unity of purpose. However, tempi are generally sedate: worryingly so in some places, as in the Mendelssohn’s finale, which (some would say) emphasises the music’s drawing room manners and saccharine taste. There are places in the Dvořák too - most obviously the four movement’s alla marcia - where, simply because they hold back so much, the music’s essential character is only half-heartedly conveyed. I suggest the Beaux Arts have prioritised on beauty of sound, without realising that they’re sacrificing something in the process.

Don’t let me give the wrong impression: there’s much to commend this disc. With over-enthusiastic allegros, the Mendelssohn commonly suffers from a loss of rhythmic clarity: but not so here! And I’ve never heard the lovely poco adagio second movement of the Dvořák - with its delicious pedal points! - sound lovelier: Pressler’s featherweight arpeggios, Hope’s velvet muted sonorities, and Meneses’ subtle underpinning of Dvořák’s delicate harmonies are enough to send one into a trance!

The recording is exemplary.

Peter J Lawson

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