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
rec. Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California,
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
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.