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A Piano Trio Anthology
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87 (1880-1882) [29:19]
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 In memory of a Great Artist (1881-82) [44:56]
Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Piano Trio No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 12 (c. 1803) [21:11]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Piano Trio in G major (1879-80) [22:34]
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32 (1894) [31:31]
Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Piano Trio No. 4 in G major, Op. 65 (c. 1814-15)
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15 (1855) [29:18]
Michael BRIMER (b. 1933)

Piano Trio No. 1 (2001) [23:35]
Ross EDWARDS (b. 1943)
Piano Trio (1998) [19:01]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Piano Trio (1937) [16:10]
The Australian Piano Trio (Donald Hazelwood (violin), Catherine Hewgill (cello, discs 2 and 3), Susan Blake (cello, discs 1 and 4), Michael Brimer (piano))
rec. Eugene Goossens Hall, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, 15, 16, 18 June 2001 (disc 1); 2-3 April 1998 (Disc 2); 27 September 1999 (Disc 3); 18-19 October 2001, 24 February 2002 (Disc 4). DDD
ABC CLASSICS 476 5235 [4 CDs: 74:17 + 75:22 + 47:41 + 58:47]  
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Piano trio anthologies in my experience are hardly two-a-penny. Four-disc anthologies are heading decisively into hen’s teeth territory. At face value the present issue might seem a useful conspectus for the general collector. Look more closely however and one discovers its riches are not really directed at such an audience.
There are for instance no pretensions at illustrating the chronological, historical or musical development of the form. The discs do not contain any examples from leading exponents of the trio such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann or Dvořák.
Given these facts it prompts the question: just who then is this set aimed at? With a generous spirit I might propose that the answer is twofold. Firstly, since it doesn’t dwell unduly on “standard” repertoire the set may usefully, and conveniently, fill gaps for the specialist chamber collector. Secondly, it provides an obvious showcase for a trio who have clearly contributed to the Australian cultural scene, not least in promotion of new music from the continent.
On the other hand, wearing less altruistic headgear, the issue might simply be viewed as a repackaging exercise; re-presenting the group’s recent recordings that have become less marketable as single discs.
Well, cynicism aside what do we have in this set? As it happens it opens with a disc of music resolutely in the category of “standard repertoire”, consisting of the 2nd Brahms and the monumental Tchaikovsky trio. Beginning with the Brahms, and listening without comparison, the trio comes across as a fine ensemble, thoughtful and straightforward in their approach, but without an element of fantasy. I compared the scherzo for example with both the Kalichstein/Laredo/Rubinstein Trio (originally Vox but recently reissued on Brilliant Classics), as well as the Beaux Arts (on Philips). Timings overall were very similar, yet the KLR Trio’s treatment for instance is quite different. Arguably they infuse the music with more interest; the outer sections are faster, more spectral, more will-o-the-wisp, contrasting with a gorgeously inflected middle section, revelling in the richness of the melody. Whilst I didn’t feel the Australians’ approach was invalidated, they presented a more moderate and considered approach.
Interestingly when I turned to the Tchaikovsky - comparing it to the classic 1960s EMI played by Barenboim, Zukerman and Du Pré - I felt they matched their better known colleagues in passion pretty much blow for blow. The EMI trio are recorded rather closer and not necessarily to their advantage. The Australians enjoy, throughout the set, what one might call a good, slightly reverberant “radio” balance, which generally helps to clarify details whilst allowing warmth to the sound.
With the second disc and Hummel’s 1st trio I find my notes scattered with the word “delightful”. I can’t pretend great familiarity with Hummel’s seven trios but I will certainly seek them out on the strength of these performances. Despite being a keyboard virtuoso Hummel resists the temptation to over-egg the composition with glittering pianism. These are well-balanced trios, with interest in each part. If anything no. 4 (on disc 3) was even more enjoyable, with the slightest whiff of military manners in the opening movement, followed by a delightfully grazioso middle movement, (beautifully played here), and a light, scherzando finale to finish.
Returning to disc 2 we discover that the “filling” in a sandwich of three trios is an example by Debussy. It’s an early work, completed in 1880, whilst Debussy was on holiday in Tuscany at the invitation of Madame Nadezhda von Meck. Often referred to as Tchaikovsky’s confidante and benefactor, it’s less well known that von Meck also provided support to the young Frenchman early in his career. Debussy’s trio remained unpublished until 1986 when the manuscript parts were finally reunited. Although not a fully mature score, it has a lot of interest, since as Michael Brimer comments in his sleeve note: “Pianistically the work bears little relation to the mainstream of piano writing in France.”
Finally Arensky’s first trio completes the disc. This is an altogether darker work composed in 1894 in memory of the cellist, composer, and for a period director of the St Petersburg Conservatoire, Karl Davidov. A straightforward sonata-form first movement is followed by a scherzo, quite striking in its use of a rippling piano part offset by high harmonics in the violin. The third movement is an elegy to Davidov, led unsurprisingly by the cello. A lovely theme which returns at the end with the cellist and violinist in poignant duet.
On disc 3 alongside the 4th Hummel sits the splendid trio by Smetana. Written during a very troubled decade, during which his wife and all four of his children died, the work appeared shortly after the demise of his eldest daughter, Bedriska, at the tender age of 4½. The result is a powerful and troubling work, the first movement building up to some titanic climaxes, violin and cello playing repeated note patterns with the piano thundering away on the top line. Then, at around the 9:20 mark, there is a brief ray of sunlight in the violin’s ascending phrases, before the clouds gather again and propel the music toward a disturbed conclusion.
In the third movement there is again a very “driven” feel to the music, and whilst the final transfiguration of the theme is pretty terrific - and very well realised by the Australians - Michael Brimer’s sleeve-note uncharacteristically describes it as: “… one of the finest things in all music.”(!)
As it happened I did have to hand a disc, on the Discover Label, of the Smetana played by the Trio Ex Aqueo; Antje Weithaas (violin), Michael Sanderling (cello) and Gerald Fauth (piano). Good though that is I have no hesitation in preferring the Australians. A little extra speed, and tautness, in the outer movements pays great dividends.
With the fourth and final disc the Australian musicians stray furthest from the well-trodden paths, encountering both a twentieth century work that has unaccountably suffered neglect, and two very recent works from fellow countrymen. Indeed one is by the trio’s own pianist.
The Bernstein came as a very welcome surprise. I was completely unaware that he had composed a piano trio, although my shame was partially assuaged by Michael Brimer’s note that reveals that the piece resurfaced only in the mid-1980s.
Like the Debussy earlier in the set, it’s the composition of a young man, written just two years before the outbreak of the second war. Overall the 19 year-old Bernstein appears to have been influenced by Prokofiev; indeed the second movement, themes from which were later used in “On the Town”, could in Brimer’s view “….sit quite comfortably within Prokofiev’s “Love for three Oranges”. It’s a good work, with characteristic Bernstein energy, especially in the finale.
This leaves the two “contemporary” Australian works, and any fears that they might “let the side down” in such auspicious company are soon dispelled. Brimer’s work, first heard at Government House in Sydney as recently as March 2001, has a rather earnest but not unattractive first movement, followed by a densely textured finale, which builds up quite a head of steam before reaching a satisfying conclusion.
Enjoyable as the Brimer was I found Ross Edwards’ trio from 1998 even more to my liking. “His belief in the healing power of music is reflected in a series of contemplative works influenced by birdsong and the mysterious polyphony of summer insects.” reports the accompanying notes. Well I can’t speak for any restorative powers but I can vouch for its interest. As it happens I first heard the piece in a car driving to Staffordshire on business … and before the letters flood in, that is NOT how I usually review the discs sent to me! Suffice it to say that despite the less than favourable circumstances, the piece made such an impression that I mentally noted to hear it again under review conditions without delay. When I did so I was not disappointed. I am sure it would win over many listeners unsure about “new music”.
The first movement has a songful demeanour, with the feel of very superior film music - a phrase I do not use condescendingly. The second movement contains a four note motif very reminiscent of Vaughan Williams - although annoyingly I can’t place it for the moment - the strings rhapsodising over sustained piano chords. The finale challenges the players with frequent changes of metre and jagged cross-rhythms that they cope with admirably.
Well, there we have it. Whilst I am still marginally concerned about the precise market for this set, I am convinced by the performances and would recommend it overall with enthusiasm. The trio are always reliable guides to this repertoire and on a number of occasions … for example the Hummel, Smetana and the contemporary works … rather more than that. The discs are also well recorded and well presented, despite the odd quirk here and there in the notes.
Basically, if this particular collection appeals … go ahead.
Ian Bailey

see also review by Michael Cookson 


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