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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, op. 66 (1845) [28:32]
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, op. 49 (1839) [27:36]
rec. 2014, St George’s, Bristol, UK.
Reviewed as 24-bit lossless download from eClassical.com BIS BIS-2109 SACD [56:08]
We aren’t exactly lacking for recordings of the Mendelssohn trios; at the time of writing, Arkivmusic lists 90 of the D minor and 70 of the C minor. There is one of both trios on Zig-Zag Territoires by Trio Dali due out this month and another on Challenge Classics later in the year. It’s not even an anniversary year. Nevertheless, fine recordings of these marvellous works are always welcome.
Mendelssohn’s composer friend, Ferdinand Hiller, on a visit to Leipzig in 1839, heard the D minor trio, and remarked on its “fire and vivacity”. For me, the latter aspect – “lightness” is another word frequently used in connection with Mendelssohn’s music – is often given undue emphasis in interpreting his works. It can lead to the music being treated as though it is delicate porcelain, to be handled oh so gently and without much feeling. Without question, there are instances where lightness is exactly what is called for – the scherzos in both trios are archetypal Mendelssohn scherzos – and would be ruined by undue heaviness. However, tempo markings that include fuoco and appassionato tell us that there is more to Mendelssohn. Balancing those two is quite a challenge, and despite the large number of recordings, I don’t think there are too many who have managed it entirely successfully.
My go-to recording for these works, and numerous others, has been the Florestan Trio on Hyperion (review). They place themselves very definitely towards the “vivacity” end of the spectrum, but with sufficient fire and feeling to make it just right. The Sitkovetsky Trio certainly doesn’t fit into the “porcelain” category: listen to some samples from the eClassical website (or elsewhere) and you soon hear what I mean – try the first movement of the C minor trio, by way of example.
My first listen to this new recording certainly caught my attention, but with the Florestan approach in my head, I found it a little too intense. A second listen smoothed out some of those reservations, and when I went back to the Florestan recording, I found myself looking for some of that intensity, especially in the opening and closing movements in both works. Returning to the Sitkovetskys, I had no sense of missing lightness in the places where it was essential, and the drama and excitement instilled into the outer movements really gave these works an added depth.
It was at this point that I felt quite nonplussed. Part way through the first listen to this recording, I was prepared to write a review, using such adjectives as interesting, individual and robust, but now I was on the point of concluding that I preferred it to the Florestan.
Some wider listening seemed called for. Michael Cookson had praised the Pentatone release by Julia Fischer and partners (review). No joy there: I found it to be lacking in both lightness and fire, too ripely Romantic for my tastes. Brian Wilson very recently said good things about the Gould Trio on Champs Hill (review) and I found it better, but no challenge to the Florestans or Sitkovetskys. I have only recently made the acquaintance of Trio Wanderer, and have found them to be rather inconsistent – sensational in French works, less so in the German repertoire – and so it eventuated: their Mendelssohn was rushed and devoid of feeling.
What this did was establish that the Sitkovetsky performances were definitely superior to the more prominent of the recent competition. However, could I bring myself to say that I preferred it to the established benchmark? In the end I decided that I didn’t need to: both versions say something to me in a complementary way. This was the conclusion I came to a few weeks ago when I found that the Trio Wanderer recording of the Fauré quartets showed me aspects of the music that my much-treasured Domus (the Florestan Trio plus one) recording didn’t and vice versa.
Where this recording completely and utterly surpasses the Florestan one is the sound quality. Until recently, I chose not to download 24-bit lossless files, being dubious that I would hear sufficient difference. However, circumstances led me to purchase a higher bit-rate recording, and it was quite revelatory — as well as encouraging in that my hearing hadn’t deteriorated as much as I feared. In this instance, I’m sure it is as much the recording itself that is so beautifully natural, and not just a consequence of the 24-bit files. By contrast, the Hyperion recording (a lossless rip from CD) sounded quite boxy. It is this aspect that moves the BIS recording into the Recording of the Month category.
The Sitkovetsky Trio formed as a professional ensemble in 2007. Violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky – his family includes great uncle violinist Julian Sitkovetsky, great aunt pianist Bella Davidovich, and uncle violinist and conductor Dmitri Sitkovetsky – and pianist Wu Qian met at the Menuhin School in their teens. They have won a number of awards and toured widely – I regret not hearing them on their Australian tour last year. This is their second recording for BIS: the first comprised Dvorak 3, Smetana and the Suk Elegy. Surprisingly, it was not reviewed here on release. Given that I am currently up to the “D” composers in my Piano trio Survey, I will be giving it a listen.
I haven’t been careless in entering the disc details above. The trios are programmed in reverse order for no reason that is explained in the booklet. The booklet cover features a watercolour of the Amalfi coast by Mendelssohn himself, and the notes are exceptionally good. The playing time is nothing to write home about, but this is the extent of what Mendelssohn wrote for this combination. Plenty of other recordings feature just these two, while others have filled the time out with works for cello and piano, or even the juvenile trio for viola, cello and piano.
An interesting journey this: one that started with curiosity and reservation, but soon led to revelation. I won’t say “finished” because as I write these concluding words, I am listening to the Sitkovetskys playing the scherzo and finale of the first trio, and their thrilling ride is giving me goosebumps.