Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63 (1847) [29:15]
Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, Op. 80 (1847) [26:29]
Piano Trio No. 3 in G minor, Op. 100 (1851) [27:53]
Ilya Gringolts (violin); Dmitry Kouzov (cello); Peter Laul (piano)
rec. Lutheran Church of St. Catherine, St. Petersburg, 4-7 June 2010
ONYX 4072 [55:45 + 27:53]

Of the three Schumann piano trios No. 1 in D minor is probably the most often played. No. 2 in F is the sunniest, while No. 3 in G minor is just one work among many which defy the much-repeated theory that Schumann was suffering from mental decline in the 1850s.

I very much like these performances, with only tiny reservations. The players have a genuine instinct for Schumann's music – its emotional ebb and flow, its expressive ardour, its blend of masculine and feminine characteristics, fire and tenderness, incisiveness and dreaming. As Hans Gál writes in his excellent BBC Music Guide to Schumann's Orchestral Music: “Schumann's style is not easy to describe. Exuberance is certainly a most essential component of it, and a cool, detached approach to his music is as impossible for the listener as for the performer. His soul is in every expressive phrase he shapes, and the instrument has to sing to do it justice.” This is equally true, if not more so, of the chamber music, and the players on these CDs are totally sensitive to these requirements. Take the first movement of the 3rd Trio, in which the composer's rhythmic obsessiveness becomes particularly intense where Schumann marks “Rascher”, before the understated, enigmatic ending. In this movement, within an ideal flexibility of tempo, every expressive nuance is cherished and there is a real sense of wonder in the new melody introduced at letter B (bar 35). The completely new material introduced in the development, including pizzicato quaver passages, is justly dramatic.

The D minor trio receives a really fine performance, though the 1928 Cortot/Thibaud/Casals recording will always be essential. The opening movement is magnificently turbulent, the ghostly passage at about the midway point (both stringed instruments playing near the bridge) being sensitively handled. In the slow movements of both this and the F major trio Gringolts, Kouzov and Laul capture that vital innig quality. The first movement of the F major work benefits from a not-too-fast tempo, while the subtle opening of the finale has the necessary spontaneity.

Among my small reservations are Gringolts' tendency to scoop or slither in some of his shifts - for example at the opening of the G minor trio – while, conversely, the players' emotional turbulence can lead to occasional heavy-handedness. These are very minor quibbles in the context of marvellously expressive playing. I gladly live with these excesses as part of their fiery, passionately involved performances. Late Schumann is often very elusive. In the same G minor trio, the change of key at letter D in the finale brings a section which is particularly difficult to bring off, but these players manage it very well. The opening theme of this finale is also problematic, the many grace notes being tricky to negotiate without harming the rhythm, but again these players make light work of it.

These performances will bring lasting pleasure. The most important qualities– the true Schumann characteristics already mentioned – are wonderfully evident and the players' total emotional commitment is admirable.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

Will bring lasting pleasure. The total emotional commitment is admirable.