This is some of the most beautiful chamber music. I rate it
as highly as Schubert’s Piano Trios, which is high praise in
my book. It’s beautifully and lovingly played by three musicians
who all excel in their respective fields, and well recorded
in a sympathetic venue. I cannot imagine that anyone who buys
this CD would feel in any serious way aggrieved. It’s quite
some time since I heard these Trios and I was delighted to make
their acquaintance again in these fine performances. Despite
the strong competition, the new recording stands firmly on its
own merits. The only slight doubt that nagged at the back of
my mind as I played it through without making any comparisons
was that it might be possible to play this music too lovingly,
over-emphasising every nuance.
That thought resurfaced when I began to look at the competition.
The earliest recording of Trio No.1 still available came from
the formidable trio of Alfred Cortot, Jacques Thibaud and Pablo
Casals, coupled with Schumann’s Trio in d, Op.63 (Naxos 8.110185).
Violinists and cellists, please excuse me if, for the rest of
this review, I call this the Cortot recording and refer to some
other recordings too by the name of the pianist. It’s not merely
that the score from which I am working highlights the piano
part, with the other two instruments in smaller print: the piano
is king in this music and its part far more demanding than any
of the performers to whom I refer make it sound.
The Florestan Trio on Hyperion and their various offshoots for
works with more than three players hardly ever seem to put a
foot wrong – as Domus, their recordings of Fauré’s Piano
Quartets and Piano Quintets still lead the field,
despite strong opposition – and it was to their recording of
the Mendelssohn that I chiefly turned (CDA57485). There is also
an earlier Florestan Trio recording, with Mendelssohn’s Piano
Works, in a Profil box set (PH08027). Both are significantly
faster throughout than the new Sony recording.
Other highly regarded recordings of these Trios are on offer
from The Gould Piano Trio (Naxos 8.555063), Julia Fischer, etc.
(PentaTone PTC186 085), The Borodin Trio (Chandos CHAN10535X),
the Beaux Arts Trio (Philips 475 1712, in a box set of chamber
works, with another performance of Trio No.1 separately on Warner
Apex 2564 61492-2). Martha Argerich and friends offer the first
Trio, coupled with Brahms on EMI 5575402 and The Nash Ensemble
add to the two Trios the Variations for cello and piano (ONYX4011).
I briefly recommended the PentaTone recording in my May, 2009,
Download Roundup – here,
echoing Michael Cookson’s recommendation to dash out and purchase
it (see review).
Subsequently MC also praised the Nash Ensemble recording alongside
the Florestan Trio and Gould Piano Trio recordings (see review).
As a huge generalisation, the groups who play together regularly
in ensembles tend to linger less and emphasise less in the outer
movements than the ad hoc combinations in these Mendelssohn
Trios. The main exception that proves this rule comes from the
Borodin Trio, who offer the slowest performances of all my comparisons.
The Cortot performance inevitably sounds rather dim and backward,
though Naxos have tidied up the 78 surface noise admirably.
These distinguished players are almost a minute faster than
Ax et al. in the opening movement; it isn’t just the
elderly recording that makes them sound more placid, less agitato
than the new performance. This is a highly revered classic account,
but I actually thought their performance less involved with
the music than the new Sony, and I marginally preferred the
new version. The Cortot version of the Scherzo is as
light and lively (leggiero e vivace) as a Mendelssohn
Scherzo should be. At 4:03 it’s a few seconds slower
than the new recording, but I wouldn’t want it to be a second
faster. Cortot’s team is a shade faster than the Sony performers
in the finale: they certainly are allegro but not, perhaps,
as assai appassionato as they might be or, indeed, as
the new Ax version is. All in all, I thought this less impressive
than their classic account of the Haydn ‘Gypsy’ Trio which I
recently praised in its Beulah Extra reincarnation. (1BX87 –
see my June 2010 Download
Except in the US, the Cortot recording can be accessed via the
Naxos Music Library, as also can that of both Trios by the Gould
Piano Trio. These are very assured performances – less overtly
dramatic in the opening movement than the new recording, but
very satisfying and excellent value, at a tempo almost exactly
halfway between it and the Cortot. The Scherzo of Trio
No.1 trips along even more lightly from the Gould Trio than
from either Ax or Cortot – it’s a few seconds faster than either,
The Florestan Trio choose almost exactly the same speed for
the opening movement of No.1 as Cortot, but they find and express
much more variety than any recording that I have heard, without
seeming to work as hard for it as Ax and his partners. I’m sure
that it’s due to their working together so often as a team in
various combinations that their performance seems more chamber-music-sized
than that of Ax and his partners, without sounding introverted.
After detailed comparison with the Sony, looking for a version
to recommend in my August 2010 Download
Roundup, I turned to these award-winning Florestan Trio
versions and found them to be preferable – the superb winning
over the (very) good, without resorting to any gimmicks, just
staying faithful to Mendelssohn’s markings. Colin Clarke thought
these the first choice, too – see his review.
There’s a real bonus for downloaders, in that the short playing
time is reflected in the price: just £5.99 for mp3 or lossless,
though the CD is worth every penny of full price.
If you like the Mendelssohn Piano Trios and are looking for
an interesting follow-up, you may wish to try a recent Toccata
Classics release of the first three of the four Piano Trios
of Salomon Jadassohn (1831-1902), played by the Syrius Trio
(TOCC0107). A student of Liszt at the Leipzig Conservatory,
soon after its foundation by Mendelssohn, Jadassohn taught Busoni,
Delius and Grieg. His music is often reminiscent of Mendelssohn:
though it has none of the intensity of Mendelssohn at his most
dramatic, it is well crafted and very enjoyable. As always,
Toccata have done lovers of chamber music great service by recording
such a worthwhile but little-known composer, in idiomatic performances,
As so often is the case, the new Sony CD stands up well in its
own terms, without making comparisons, especially if you enjoy
hearing three star performers, virtuosi in their own rights,
making a very forceful statement about the music. With good
recording and an informative and personal response to the music
from Emanuel Ax in the notes, purchasers should be well pleased.
It does, however, come at full price when there are budget-price
alternatives on Naxos, historical (Cortot) and modern (Gould),
with which I think purchasers will be equally pleased. If you
are prepared to pay full price, you should seriously consider
the PentaTone recording or, I suggest even more strongly, the
Hyperion; the latter in particular has an edge over the new