Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Piano Trio in G minor, op.17 (1846) [29:20]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Trio in D minor, op.63 (1847) [31:50]
The Castle Trio (Lambert Orkis (piano); Marilyn McDonald (violin); Kenneth Slowik (cello))
rec. Community Church, Ashburnham, Massachusetts, June 1992. DDD
SMITHSONIAN CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY FOM 36-801 [61:10]
 
The Smithsonian Chamber Music Society's raison d'Ítre is the provision of public access, through concerts and recordings, to its valuable collection of historical instruments: to "take the instruments out of their cases and make them sing."
 
This disc is the third release by the Society on its own 'Friends of Music' label, the fruit of plans to revive some previously released material (here, for example). These are thus oldish recordings, as the dates indicate, but the Castle Trio are still going strong, still with the same three members, in fact. Marilyn McDonald is a professor of violin and Baroque violin in the US, and veteran of numerous big-label recordings. Lambert Orkis is perhaps best known for his recordings of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas alongside Anne-Sophie Mutter in the Nineties. Kenneth Slowik is the Society's artistic director, has made a hatful of recordings and his CV is as long and scenic as a country mile. Their performances in this recital are utterly genial. For the record, they use a parallel-strung J. B. Streicher piano of 1846, a 1670 gut-strung Guarneri violin and 1730 Testore cello. The piano will likely not be to everyone's taste - though chronologically authentic, it sounds something like a modern piano with about 10% cimbalom blood. At any rate, this was at the time the first period recording of both works.
 
Although Robert Schumann's output was more varied than Clara's, comparison reveals some striking similarities in many of their works - not least between their respective Piano Concertos in A minor and these Trios - indicative of an ongoing family propagation/assimilation of musical ideas, before the demands of raising their seven children led Clara, in an era where more enlightened fathering was still a long way off, to give up composing at 36.
 
The two Piano Trios, often paired for performance in 19th century venues, date from the same period, are both in minor keys, very alike in overall length, with further strong similarities in the individual movements - most arresting in the identical-to-the-second timings of the finales, at least as performed by the Castle Trio. Both begin in reflective, melancholy mood, but there is soon some loosening of the collar and the works generally bask in the lyricism, warmth, energy and understated drama that is reminiscent always of Mendelssohn where not obviously from a Schumann pen. The D minor Trio is generally considered to be the best of Robert's three, and has been recorded dozens of times before. When this recording was made, there was not much competition for Clara's Trio; nowadays there is plenty, including a few coupled with one or more of Robert's. See especially these reviews of a Naxos CD that throws in her Piano Concerto, and a delectable 4-disc set on Thorofon Classics that includes complete Schumann Trios. Whichever performances are preferred, any suggestion that Clara's work is in any way inferior to Robert's is soon dispelled. Movements are pretty evenly matched throughout for imagination and quality of writing, especially first and last; whereas Clara's sparkling second shades Robert's, his luscious third beats her more mundane second.
 
Sound quality is good - warmish and nicely balanced, with typical church reverberation. The booklet is housed in a digipak case. The notes by Kenneth Slowik are informative and well written, and there is a brief introductory paragraph on each of the soloists, though nothing about the Smithsonian Society itself.
 
Incidentally, a new BIS release gives listeners a further chance to compare the two Schumanns, in a recital of their songs, sung by the soprano Miah Persson - see review.
 
Byzantion
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
 
Utterly genial performances.