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 Vienna’s
famed Musikverein. They have made numerous recordings for
Challenge Classics, the independent Netherlands record company,
to considerable critical acclaim. Their recording of Schumann’s
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Martin Hornstein has been replaced by Alexander Gebert.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
four movement work is exquisite and remains the most admired
of Mendelssohn’s 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.
C minor Piano Trio was composed in 1845 in Frankfurt and dedicated
to the composer Louis Spohr. At this time in Mendelssohn’s
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 work’s 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 Mendelssohn’s two Piano Trios that I will
return to most frequently, for controlled energy and judicious
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
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, “The Florestans keep
textures light and transparent. Both performances are models
of Mendelssohn interpretation.”
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.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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