Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, op. 67 (1944) [26:35]
Joan TOWER (b. 1938)
Big Sky (2000) [7:00]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, ‘Dumky’ op. 90 (1891) [32:11]
The Oberlin Trio (Haewon Song (piano), David Bowlin (violin), Amir Eldan (cello))
rec. 2014, Clonick Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Ohio, USA
Reviewed as lossless download from eclassical
OBERLIN MUSIC CD1601 [65:45]

I wonder about the viability of recordings like this. Musicians who are only household names in their own households playing two works which are staples of the piano trio repertoire: both the Dvořák and Shostakovich have in excess of sixty recordings. The work by Joan Tower then becomes the point of difference, but at seven minutes, it is hard to see it providing a convincing argument for possible purchasers. The only way to make an impression would be for the two “big” trios to be given stunningly good performances, and alas, here they are not.

Shostakovich’s second trio was written in the midst of the war and after the death of a close friend, Ivan Sollertinsky. It is part elegy and part angst. The Oberlin Trio seem to miss the second aspect entirely. By way of example, the entry of the piano in the final movement lacks any bite or anger. What should be a wild, frenetic and angry dance is almost sedate and certainly polite. With all the great performances of this work, the Beaux Arts Trio comes to my mind, this does not compete at all.

In the notes on her work that she provides for the booklet, Joan Tower states that it reflects her feelings when riding a horse through the Bolivian Andes, gazing at the “very peaceful and extraordinarily beautiful” big sky. I don’t get that sense that at all; in fact, the short phrases and angular melodies create something of a claustrophobic atmosphere. Such is the subjective nature of music.

Dvořák’s Dumky Trio is one of his most unconventional works, set in six movements, each based around a dumka, a Slavonic lament. Each movement has significant variation in tone and tempo throughout. The Oberlin Trio give a very serviceable performance, and I especially liked the third movement, where I had the distinct sense of American folksong even though this was written the year before he made his famous trip. However, for characterisation, contrast of the different sections and sheer charisma, they cannot compete with the best, which for me, is the trio of Melnikov, Faust and Queyras on Harmonia Mundi (review).

The Oberlin Trio was founded in 1982 by three members of the staff of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The name of the ensemble lives on with three new performers, also on staff. They are perfectly competent musicians, but lack the level of inspiration to lift any of these performances above the merely satisfactory, and in the case of the Shostakovich not even that. The production values are good, but that can’t make this a recommendation.

David Barker
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