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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 (1839) [27:27]
Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66 (1845) [29:18]
Altenberg Trio, Vienna: (Claus-Christian Schuster (piano); Amiram Ganz (violin); Martin Hornstein (cello))
rec. Muziekcentrum, Den Bosch, The Netherlands, June 2002. DDD

Since their debut at the 1994 Salzburg Mozart Week the Vienna-based Altenberg Trio has enjoyed success with recitals on the international stage. The Altenbergs, one of the few full-time piano trios in chamber music, present a regular concert series at Viennaís famed Musikverein. They have made numerous recordings for Challenge Classics, the independent Netherlands record company, to considerable critical acclaim. Their recording of Schumannís Piano Trios was awarded the Schumann Prize (Zwickau 1999), while a recording of American Piano Trios from Ives, Copland and Bernstein earned them an Edison Award (Amsterdam 2000). Since this recording was made in 2002 it seems that cellist Martin Hornstein has been replaced by Alexander Gebert.
Mendelssohn strove to reconcile the Classical heritage of the 18th century with the Romantic mood of his own personality. He composed only two Piano Trios but it is known that before he was eleven years old he wrote another which has since been lost. There are letters that indicate that the genre attracted him far more than his two surviving contributions would indicate. During a visit to Paris, when he was 23, he wrote to his sister Fanny of his intention to write another Piano Trio. However, it was not until 1839 that he actually composed his first Piano Trio.
The D minor Trio, composed in Leipzig and in Frankfurt, was an immediate success and has proved to be one of his most popular scores ever since. In well-balanced proportions the exuberant four movement work is exquisite and remains the most admired of Mendelssohnís two Piano Trios. It has an abundance of charm and an aesthetic appeal that has maintained its eminent status in the chamber music repertoire. Mendelssohn was careful to involve all of the participants equally in the D minor work. However, in the presentation and development of the thematic material it is the piano which is granted the most brilliant of the three parts. Apparently in the original version of the work the piano part was considerably more subdued. In later years Mendelssohn undertook a revision at the urging of his friend, the composer and conductor Ferdinand Hiller, who encouraged him to incorporate some of the advanced technical devices of Liszt and Chopin to better display the skill of the pianist.
The C minor Piano Trio was composed in 1845 in Frankfurt and dedicated to the composer Louis Spohr. At this time in Mendelssohnís life his already fragile health was deteriorating and he was experiencing the overwhelming strain of dividing his time between Berlin, Leipzig and London. Mendelssohn was bedridden when he commenced the C minor score and it is no surprise to discover that the workís over-extended stretches sounds like a musical account of those extremely difficult days.
The Altenberg Trio give first class readings of these underrated scores. One has full confidence in their technical assurance and a strong sense of the pleasure that the players achieve. These are sturdy and strongly characterised performances that provide a wide spectrum of brilliant colours.
In the D minor Trio the vitality and sharpness from the Altenbergs is immediately apparent in the opening molto allegro agitato. I was impressed with their interpretation of the second movement andante. In this delightful Song Without Words their sweet and sensitive approach soon becomes a delight to the ear. The vivacious playing from the Vienna group in the demanding and sparkling third movement scherzo is especially satisfying. The Altenbergs perform the first movement of the C minor Trio with commendable style and vigour. The darker hues of the andante espressivo movement are proficiently revealed by the trio and their progress to the gently lilting finish is impressive. Their vitality in the energetic third movement scherzo is never in any danger of going headlong out of control. The rondo - finale is communicated with an impressive blend of energy and considerable affection. They convincingly convey the restless energy that concludes the score with a triumphant air.
The recording of Mendelssohnís two Piano Trios that I will return to most frequently, for controlled energy and judicious selection of dynamic contrasts, is that from the outstanding Gould Piano Trio, recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk in 2000 on Naxos 8.555063 (see review). The Gould Trio is an improving ensemble that I have seen several times and since this Naxos recording they have now engaged the services of cellist Alice Neary. In recital the Goulds provide a consistently high level of performance. Only six days ago I attended one of their recitals at Kendal, Cumbria and once again their standard of performance was exceptional. In addition, I also highly rate the award-winning readings of the Florestan Trio on Hyperion CDA67485 (see review). Recorded in the Henry Wood Hall, London in 2003, the Guardian reviewer was accurate in his description, ďThe Florestans keep textures light and transparent. Both performances are models of Mendelssohn interpretation
These are sturdy and strongly characterised performances by the Altenberg Trio of Vienna that will aptly satisfy admirers of these Piano Trios. The Challenge Classics engineers have provided a realistic and well balanced sound quality. The drawbacks are the disappointing booklet notes, which consist mainly of quotations, and the playing time is ungenerous.
Michael Cookson






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