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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8 [31:58]
Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 [29:58]
Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 101 [21:28]
David Perry (violin), Paulina Zamora (piano), Uri Vardi (cello)
rec. August 2010, Mills Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison
DELOS DE3489 [83:24]

The artists on this Delos recording appear to have no corporate identity as a piano trio, nor, as far as I can tell, premier league status as international soloists. They are without doubt first-class players and on the strength of these performances should collaborate more, but will a lack of individual or collective recognition disadvantage them in an increasingly crowded Brahms piano trio market? There is a common factor, though: all are associated with the University of Wisconsin; David Perry is professor of violin, Uri Vardi professor of cello and Paulina Zamora, according to the CD booklet, has performed there and given piano master-classes. If that is their corporate identity, perhaps they could make more of it. While “The Wisconsin Trio” springs to mind, I note it’s also the name of a local three-cheese dish, and metaphorically may not be the best choice!

The Delos set is also at or near premium price, and indeed more expensive than the sets I’ve chosen for comparison: Katchen/Suk/Starker from 1968 (Decca mid-price), and Trio Fontenay from 1987-89 (Warner Apex budget price). All three sets are packaged in twofer-style jewel cases. However, Delos provide just the three piano trios, while the other sets are filled out with additional Brahms chamber works, including from Trio Fontenay the disputed op. posth. A major Piano Trio. At 83:24 total timing, the Delos offering is just more than one CD’s worth, and some price concession on this basis might have been reasonable.

The second and third trios occupy the first CD, with the first trio on the second. I can only imagine this is because the first trio is the longest, but only just. It is, by the way, the revised and shorter 1889 version. David Barker in his piano trio survey observes that most performances of this trio clock in at over 36 minutes; Zamora, Perry and Vardi take just under 32 minutes by skipping the first movement exposition repeat. While some will bemoan this omission, the likes of the Beaux Arts Trio have also done it. Other than that, movement timings for all trios on the Delos set are comparable, give or take, with the Decca and Warner Apex sets.

I’m also mindful of David Barker’s separation of Brahms piano trio performances into Romantic and Classical styles. If I interpret him correctly, the Katchen/Suk/Starker and Trio Fontenay sets are Romantic, while Zamora, Perry and Vardi on Delos would fit the Classical mould, more amiable than urgent, the dynamics and accents less pronounced. The playing comes across as ripe and slightly understated, although recording acoustics can often influence such impressions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening Allegro of the C Major trio. While Simon Thompson’s review has reservations about the Trio Fontenay’s performance of this movement, both they and Katchen/Suk/Starker kindle a much greater Brahmsian strength and tension of the kind we’ve come to expect. On the other hand, I found I could listen to all three trios on the new set without a break, finding in general the playing and sound a pleasurable experience; normally, one trio at a time is sufficient for me ... sitting back rather than straining forward. If this is the way you like your Brahms, perhaps this is the set for you.

The Delos set faces stiff competition as well in the sonic stakes. The Decca sound for Katchen/Suk/Starker, while starting to show its age in the upper registers, still has a remarkable and riveting in-room presence. The original Teldec sound for the Trio Fontenay is also arrestingly real, more natural perhaps than Decca’s extremes of closeness and stereo separation. The Delos sound for Zamora, Perry and Vardi is more of a mixed bag. Recorded in the Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin, it is generally warm, rich and full, with a pleasing ambience and realistic depth perspectives. However, the stereo image is somewhat vague, with all instruments grouped roughly around centre-stage, shifting position and size apparently with pitch and volume, and not always well delineated. The piano sound is on the muffled side, the result I suspect of a partly closed lid.

So where to place this new Brahms set? The informative booklet contains the following note on the purpose of his piano trios: “a means for companionship, musical pleasure, and deep joy. They invite us to enter a Brahmsian world designed for everyone, for amateurs and professionals, filled with generous emotion”. This seems to resonate with the spirit in which Zamora, Perry and Vardi perform these works, and thus they may well be true to their cause: Brahms for pleasure. Perhaps we have a modern tendency to over-cook these works and lose sight of their more convivial origins.

While I cannot see this set challenging the best on the market, I do believe it has an audience who will appreciate its particular aesthetic.

Des Hutchinson



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