Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49 (1839) [28:52]
Song without Words, Op. 53, No. 2 (18xx, arr. Hans Sitt) [2:51]
Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66 (1844-5) [29:14]
Argenta Trio (James Winn (piano); Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio (violin); Dimitri Atapine (cello))
rec. Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California, October 2010
BRIDGE 9338 [60:57]
Mendelssohn's basically sunny, untormented musical disposition has left him underrated relative to his early-Romantic contemporaries - for how can so cheerfully melodic a composer be important? His music utterly refuses even to acknowledge the shadow of Beethoven, which would so loom over Brahms. Salonish performances of his short piano pieces can leave a saccharine impression; the oratorios can suggest stodginess.
But the almost operatic drama of the D minor trio's Finale - suggested also by the C minor's dark opening theme - shows that Mendelssohn didn't ignore Mozart, at least. His through-composed scherzos - eliding sections, rather than marking them with full cadences - represent a structural advance on the rigorously tripartite Classical form. And even the composer's detractors don't deny his skilled craftsmanship - not only his assured handling of design, but his command of the small-scale elements within it: the dotted rhythms that generate impetus in the D minor's slow movement, for example, or the Lutheran chorale, introduced by the piano, that calms the restless motion of the C minor's Finale.
The Argenta Trio is an ensemble in residence at the University of Nevada. If I single out pianist James Winn from among them, it is because he brings such unobtrusive aplomb to the virtuosic piano parts. Arpeggiations, scales, shifting chord patterns - Winn carries everything off with dash, limpid articulation, and firm tonal weight while blending into the overall sonic-dramatic framework, except where the piano has the primary material, as at 3:48 of the D minor's opening movement. I'd have preferred a fuller violin timbre than Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio's, but her tone is clear and her phrasing consistently stylish, and she's impeccably in tune. Cellist Dimitri Atapine intones the opening phrase of the D minor mournfully - it's the kind of thing one relishes in chamber music - and brings a dusky warmth to other lyrical phrases, such as that at 1:33 of the C minor's Finale.
The Argenta players project Mendelssohn's larger designs clearly, while understanding how the details contribute to their success - note the way the players settle into the recap of the C minor's Andante espressivo at 3:59, and the clarity of the contrapuntal back-and-forth in the Scherzo of the D minor. The distinctive character of each passage emerges vividly: the cheerful bustle of the C minor's Scherzo, the sadness of the D minor's slow movement when the strings join the piano. Both slow movements, in fact, are the more moving for the players' forthright yet sensitive simplicity.
The one movement that doesn't work is the D minor's Finale, whichseems to go on a bit too long, "telegraphing" a conclusion some minutes before it actually arrives. This might well seem the composer's shortcoming, rather than the performers', save that the Borodin Trio account (Chandos), which I've previously reviewed here, has no such problem.
I prefer that Chandos disc for its richer, more full-bodied conceptions. Still, the Bridge issue is pleasing, especially for Winn's superb pianism. And the Argenta adds an arrangement of one of the Songs without Words as a "breather" between the two major works. The chromatics could make the piece wilt and droop, but the players invest it with a tensile forward motion that stresses its agitation and downplays its sweetness.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
Pleasing, especially for the superb pianism.