Despite their perceptible similarity, Mendelssohn’s two piano
trios go well as a pair, and are frequently coupled on disc.
Together they form one of the cornerstones of the Romantic chamber
music. They can be a perfect argument to mobilize against those
who do not regard Mendelssohn as a serious composer – a demonstration
of composing prowess which is inferior to neither Schumann nor
Brahms. Unlike those two, Mendelssohn effortlessly manages to
marry the Romantic passions with Classical clarity and simplicity.
These are two must-know works, though not necessarily in these
particular readings. Unlike many other records we also get a
substantial filler – an attractive and rarely heard work by
The First Trio starts in a proto-Brahmsian manner:
stormy, passionate, with plenty of edge and drama. The slow
movement is a sincere love song. There are worries and sorrows
in this love story and it becomes troubled at times, yet still
yielding love prevails. Next comes a light, quicksilver “Mendelssohn
scherzo”, almost a standard in his works, with all the habitual
flutter of tiny wings in weightless flight. The finale is a
long rondo-style movement which sounds like a precursor to Dvorák’s
dances: it is almost a polka in minor key. The effect is cool
and fresh, and more than once it returns to the high drama of
the first movement.
This music is very taut and concentrated but the performance
is by no means a good match. It sounds to me a little spongy
and watery. On the positive side, it is not mannered. This is
especially vital in the slow movement: the musicians may not
express its full magic but their performance has a charming
coolness of a fresh forest spring. Yet at times it feels like
watching a TV picture that has too much brightness and contrast.
The Scherzo is clearly articulated, but the added weight and
roughness emphasize the folk-dance, not the elfin qualities.
The heavy piano sound gives too much weight to the thick textures
of the finale. More lightness would have been a plus, but otherwise
the presentation is very well put together. The coda is excellent:
fiery and ecstatic. Overall, the performance is expressive and
accentuated, but a tad heavy, which is not helped by the recording
“from inside”. The instruments stand separate, not always blending
The Second Trio has a similar structure and mood. The
opening Sonata Allegro is Kreutzer-like: all rain and
wind, all pull and pressure. The second subject is passionately
Romantic. The slow movement is quite philosophical: calm and
thoughtful, at times plaintive, at times positive and affirmative.
The middle episode is more disturbed, yet its passions are subdued.
Another busily hustling “Mendelssohn scherzo” follows; its note-spinning
is cool. The Trio has a rustic, folk-dance character, with a
glimpse of the future “French scherzos” of Fauré. The Finale
is mighty, rolling and wide-winged, very heroic.
The opening movement is segmented and does not require as much
concentration as in the first Trio; here the presentation of
the ensemble is apt. They are expressive and bring to light
all the colours of Mendelssohn’s palette. Their reading is more
aggressive than lyrical. The piano is too hard in the slow movement:
with all this boom-boom, we experience a bumpy ride instead
of an enveloping immersion. The music becomes hefty, with insufficient
forward momentum and too much pressure. The musicians do not
adopt a break-neck speed in the Scherzo: it runs rather than
flies. Drama is in and Mendelssohn’s airiness is out. This is
possibly due to the close and detailed recording. On the other
hand, the drive is excellent, and there is no shortage of excitement.
The finale is not too fast, it has good weight, and a resolute,
full voice. It is a powerful and beautiful reading: not one
of those tight and gripping performances, but grand and imposing.
Schumann’s Six Pieces in Canonic Form are the fruit
of composer’s continued interest in contrapuntal writing. They
were composed for the pedal piano, but since this instrument
did not gain much popularity, they were transcribed for different
instrumental combinations by Schumann himself, by Bizet, by
Debussy, or – as in this case – by Theodor Kirchner.
The first piece is so Bachian, it could have come from one of
his sets of Inventions. The strict canonic technique is very
pronounced. The bright, multi-coloured light seems to be coming
through stained glass windows. The mood is one of calm, assured
happiness. Starting from the next piece, we enter Schumann’s
peculiar world. Number 2 is a Romantic song, full of beautiful
sadness. It is one of those melodies that can ensure composers
today can live Happily Ever After. The generous imagination
of Schumann just threw them out into the air, as easily as an
illusionist drags ribbons from his hat. This piece is followed
by a lively dialog of the two string instruments, like a spirited
love duet by two young and happy lovers.
The fourth piece is warm and lyrical. It resembles the gorgeous
slow movements of Schumann’s chamber works. The turbulent middle
episode is tense and troubled. Number 5 is very interesting
and wears a mischievous smile. Almost polka-like, it brings
to mind the famous Musical Moment by Schubert, both
in the bouncy melody and the character of the tip-toed dance.
The cycle closes on a serene note, with a prayer-like melody,
slow and tranquil. There are some echoes of Bach again. All
calms down, as if in soft, warm twilight.
This performance of Schumann seems to me ideal – emotive, with
full sound and good balance, unrushed and beautiful. The Romantic
attitude of the performers is especially noticeable here, as
literally every note has a Romantic expressiveness.
The recording quality is very good, the sound is clear, and
all instruments are well defined. The pianissimos are never
lost, and the fortissimos are never painful. I must emphasize
the full, ripe sound of the cello, which usually suffers the
most from recording balance problems in a piano trio. However,
the “bigger” cello does not overturn the balance: it is just
heard really well. String instruments are sonorous and juicy,
but the piano is a tad heavy: a lighter one would suit Mendelssohn’s
works better. The recording is very detailed with the listener
placed right between the instruments. As a result, the instruments
do not always blend.
An excellent liner-note gives an interesting musical and historical
analysis, and also tells us about the performers. It is in English
I would endorse this disc for the Schumann, which is interesting
and rarely heard. The Mendelssohn trios receive good quality
readings but they do not replace the best existing versions.
see also review
by Jonathan Woolf