Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Piano Trio No.1 in d minor, Op.49 [29:09]
Piano Trio No.2 in c minor, Op.66 [30:16]
Itzhak Perlman (violin); Yo-Yo Ma (cello); Emanuel Ax (piano)
rec. Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, 28-29 March 2009. DDD.
SONY CLASSICAL 88697 52192 2 [59:40]

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 Roundup).

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, too.

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, well recorded.

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 recording.

Brian Wilson

Convincing in its own terms, but facing strong competition in all price ranges.