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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Piano Trios and Works for Cello and Piano
Piano Trio No.1 in d minor, Op.49 (1840) [27:52]
Variations Concertantes for cello and piano in D, Op.17 (1829) [9:30]
Piano Trio No.2 in c minor, Op.66 (1844, pub.1846) [28:33]
Albumblatt for piano in e minor, Op.117 [2:01]
Song without words for cello and piano in D, Op.109 [4:54]
Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano))
rec. Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK, 28-30 November 2012 (Trios), 8 April 2013. DDD
CHAMPS HILL RECORDS CHRCD088 [72:33]

The Gould Piano Trio have already recorded the two Mendelssohn Piano Trios, albeit with a different cellist, Martin Storey, and that remains available at budget price (Naxos 8.555063 – review).  Their chosen tempi have remained remarkably consistent in the intervening years, with the new recordings seconds faster overall.  For all the virtues of their earlier set, however, I’ve chosen to compare the new Gould Trio with the Florestan Trio (Hyperion CDA67485 – Recording of the Month: review and August 2010 Download Roundup), and with Julia Fischer, Daniel Müller-Schott and Jonathan Gilad (PentaTone PTC5186085 – review).

In 2010 I wrote of that Hyperion recording: ‘Reviewing a recent release of these trios from Itzhak Perlman, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma (Sony Classical 88697 52192 2), I turned for comparison to these award-winning Florestan Trio versions and found them to be preferable – the superb winning over the (very) good, without resorting to any gimmicks, just staying faithful to Mendelssohn’s markings’. Colin Clarke thought these the first choice, too – see his review.

With just the two Trios on offer, the Hyperion playing time is shorter than the generously timed new Champs Hill but downloading makes up for that: just £5.99 from hyperion-records.co.uk in mp3 or CD-quality lossless sound, with a pdf version of the booklet to boot.  Similarly the PentaTone can be yours downloaded from eclassical.com for just $10.62 in mp3 and 16-bit lossless, though 24-bit is more expensive at $19.48.

Before you can get to the music on Champs Hill there’s one small nuisance: I can never see the point of adding a cardboard slip cover with exactly the same cover shot on the front and the same information as the CD on the back.  This one is not shrink-wrapped as some appear to be, making the CD case hard to extract, but it’s superfluous and best discarded.

The performance of the First Piano Trio is very good when taken on its own merits.  It’s apparent from the start that the performance is going to be slightly mellower than from the Florestan Trio, though the recording may be partly responsible for the effect: the stop-watch indicates only a very slightly slower time – 9:17 against 9:08, with Julia Fischer et al slightly slower still at 9:39.  As so often happens, those paper differences are less apparent in reality.

The contrast is more marked in the andante con moto tranquillo slow movement.  The three elements of that direction are really at odds with one another; the Gould Trio and especially the PentaTone team tend to emphasise the andante part, at 6:19 and 6:58 respectively, while the Florestans pay more attention to the con moto.  Without ever sounding brusque or cool, they put a shade less emotion into the music than the Gould Trio or Fischer and her team, but all three achieve pretty effective tranquillo playing.

There’s a degree of unanimity about the tempo for the scherzo: all three trios give deft performances. The finale, too, is well performed by all three, with very little difference in overall timings.  Of the three performances, the Gould Trio are more prescient of the style of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in this movement, with the Florestan sounding a little subdued by comparison.  It’s chiefly in the second movement, however, that the Gould see the music in the most romantic vein.

You won’t be surprised to learn that much the same comments apply to Trio No.2, with the Gould noticeably slightly slower than the Florestan in the first two movements and much closer in the last two.  It’s on the PentaTone recording, however, that the players really go to town with a very slow tempo for the second movement.  I played their version of this movement first and expected to find the second half of the direction andante espressivo unduly exaggerated.  In the event I thought their interpretation a trifle cool, finding fewer of the ‘darker tones’ than Michael Cookson mentions in his review: see link above.

Other reviewers have commented on the lightness and clarity of the Florestan Trio performances and that is certainly apparent in their fairly brisk – but not brusque – account of this movement.  At a considerably faster speed, they seem to me to be if anything more expressive than Fischer and her team, but I imagine that the Gould Trio, who fall between the two, will seem to many listeners to provide an ideal compromise.  In the finale again Tchaikovsky, whose own Piano Trio lay nearly forty years in the future (1881/2) came to mind more readily than in other performances.

The works for cello and piano are attractive makeweights – actually rather more than makeweights – on the Champs Hill recording when the chief rivals offer only the two Piano Trios.

Overall, then, I was perfectly happy with the Gould Trio recordings.  If I retain a penchant for the somewhat more business-like Florestan accounts – slightly more cognisant of Mendelssohn’s classical inheritance which Benjamin Frith stresses in the Champs Hill booklet – that’s a matter of personal taste. I could well imagine that others would see it differently, especially if you like the finale of both trios to sound really powerful.  It’s only when heard together in Building a Library style, however, that the differences are magnified.

All three versions are well recorded, but only the PentaTone comes as an SACD or 24-bit download.  The extra clarity of 24/96 is apparent and will appeal especially to those with younger and sharper ears.  If I have suggested that the Champs Hill recording makes the Gould Trio sound mellower, that isn’t meant as a criticism; in fact it’s well balanced.

While on the subject of Mendelssohn Piano Trios, let me mention another Hyperion recording, this time on their budget-price Hyperion Helios label and of music from a different Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel.  Without going as far as those who rate the highly talented sister higher than her more famous brother, her Piano Trio in D, Op.11, well performed by the Dartington Piano Trio on CDH55078, coupled with one by Clara Schumann in g minor, Op.17, is well worth investigating, especially at the modest price – CD or download from hyperion-records.co.uk (mp3 and lossless, with pdf booklet).

Brian Wilson