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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Trio in B flat major, K502 (1786) [21.44]
Piano Trio in E major, K542 (1788) [18.41]
Piano Trio in G major, K564 (1788) [18.18]
The Florestan Trio (Anthony Marwood, violin; Richard Lester, cello; Susan Tomes, piano)
rec. 15-17 May 2005, Henry Wood Hall, London, England DDD
HYPERION CDA67556 [59:01]
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Compared with the quartets, quintets and indeed some of the violin sonatas Mozart’s piano trios have traditionally held a much less exalted position in his chamber music output. This seems a pity for the set of five trios for piano, violin and cello: K496, K502, K542, K548 and K564, that he composed between 1786 and 1788, contain some of his sunniest and most relaxed music. During this period Mozart was at the heights of his powers and he had experienced the only real success of his adult career. In 1785 he had completed his six string quartets, dedicated to Haydn, and the opera The Marriage of Figaro had received its première in Vienna in 1786 to considerable acclaim. The set of five piano trios, completed within a two year timescale, date from a period of great personal crisis and unhappiness. Although the years 1786-88 were highly creative with the production of his last three symphonies, the opera Don Giovanni and most of the late piano concertos, the period saw Mozart rapidly spiralling into debt. It was also the time of the death of his father Leopold.

Biographer Alec Hyatt King writes of the five piano trios that, "The medium was a popular one in Vienna, and, as none of the five bears any dedication, it seems likely that Mozart wrote them to make money. But they may have originally been intended for private enjoyment." The basic structure is that which Mozart inherited from Haydn. They are three movement works in which the piano dominates. At the same time Mozart employed a new relationship between the piano and the stringed instruments to explore new ideas. The violin, and to a lesser extent the cello, begin to explore a new-found freedom.

One of my favourite works among the three Trios here is the seemingly sunny and relatively undemanding B flat major Piano Trio, K502. It is easy to underestimate the sophistication of the score in which the piano part has a particularly flamboyant concerto-like character.

In a three month period in 1788 Mozart wrote three piano trios and the first one the E major Piano Trio, K542 is considered to be the most significant and certainly the most moving. As with the earlier K502 the piano writing at times resembles that of a concerto. Alec Hyatt King explains that, "its texture is transparent and the prevailing mood is one of vernal happiness." But the radiance is infused with a sadness which is intensified by almost Schubertian modulations to remote keys.

The G major Piano Trio, K564 is the last work that Mozart wrote in the genre. The score was still advertised by the publishers as being, "for harpsichord or forte piano with the accompaniment of a violin and violoncello." This uncomplicated work has a more ‘domestic’ feel compared to those he wrote earlier in the year, being simpler and shorter, perhaps, aimed at the amateur performance market. For all its outward gaiety and verve the G major score, compared to K502 and K542, lacks tautness of construction and fresh invention; the intimacy, too, is gone.

The award winning Florestan Trio are firmly established as one of the world’s premiere chamber ensembles making their reputation primarily with many excellent interpretations of the great Classical masters. Their Hyperion recordings of the piano trios of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann hold a primary position in my personal collection. The Florestans are equally at home in Romantic music and I view their recent release of the Saint-Saëns piano trios on Hyperion CDA67538 as worthy of the glowing reviews it has received.

In K502 the Florestan Trio give an impeccable interpretation that is natural and authoritative. Pianist Susan Tomes provides just the right amount of extrovert character in the flamboyant writing. The finale is a wide-ranging rondo that is given a fluid and lyrical interpretation; an unqualified delight.

The straightforward and cheerful mood of K542 is fluently communicated by the Florestans who also manage to uncover the undercurrent of melancholy in the score. I loved their sensitive performance of the graceful central movement andante which is suggestive of the poise of a formal dance and also the subtle playing of the poignant middle section.

The elegant and lyrical structures of K564 demand absolute clarity and precision which the Florestans embrace with style and refinement. The mood shifts of the final movement allegretto, which require the deftest of touches, are achieved with remarkable perception and adroit control.

Of the alternative recordings one of the finest versions is the 1990 Berlin performances of the complete Piano Trios from the Trio Fontenay. These brim with artistry and exuberance (Warner Classics Apex 2564 62189-2; c/w Divertimento, K254). For their masterly control and strong personality I remain a firm admirer of the complete Piano Trios from the famous Beaux Arts Trio. These scores form part of a five disc collection of the Piano Trios/Quartets/Quintets on the Complete Mozart Edition vol. 14 on Philips 422 514-2.

Worthy of investigation is the vibrant and stylish 1994-95 Munich account of K502 from Maria João Pires, Augustin Dumay and Jian Wang on Deutsche Grammophon 449 208-2; c/w Piano Trio, K496 and Divertimento, K254. Employing period-instruments, another K502 and K542 recording of considerable merit, is led by fortepianist Andras Schiff. The 1995 recording from the Mozarteum, Salzburg is notable for sensitivity and alertness (Warner Classics Elatus 264 61733-2; c/w Trio for piano, clarinet and viola, K498 ‘Kegelstatt’.).

On this recording from the Florestan Trio the Hyperion engineers have provided well balanced sound that is bright and detailed. The Florestans’ modern instruments have a splendid timbre and I especially admired the radiant tone of the Steinway. The first class liner notes from Robert Philip are interesting and highly informative.

These superb performances can live with the very best. Highly recommended.

Michael Cookson


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