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Heinrich von HERZOGENBERG (1843-1900)
Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op.24 [35:17]
Piano Trio No. 2 in D minor, Op.36 [30:21]
Vienna Piano Trio
rec. 2016, Konzerthaus der Abtei, Marienmünster, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
MDG 9422017-6 SACD [65:38]

I’ve known about the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg for a number of years and have several CDs of his music in my collection, so it was a nice surprise to be able to review a disc of his two piano trios, with neither of which I was previously familiar. Herzogenberg was a friend of Brahms’s although Brahms, in his typical acerbic way was not exactly complimentary about Herzogenberg – when pressed about what he thought of his music; Brahms replied “[he] is able to do more than any of the others”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement! Surprisingly, there is little similarity between the styles of the two composers despite the veneration which Herzogenberg had for the decade older Brahms.

The first work on this disc is the First trio in C minor, dating from 1876. The opening Allegro is melodic and cheerful, despite starting sombrely in the minor key. There is some lovely and interesting writing here, especially for the piano. The way the main themes are intertwined is superbly done, and the performance is excellent. The transition at 1:43 is particularly well done; the three instruments quieten down before a happy and cheerful little tune, led by the piano and then taken up by violin, starts up. The movement is divided into 3 broad sections and there is an overall atmosphere of positivity here; the music stays in C major almost all the time. The composer, here, was clearly very confident of his abilities and this shows in the outgoing music. The central part about 5:30 is beautiful, both in the music and the playing. The movement ends confidently, with a nice wrapping-up of the sonata form which underpins this movement. The following Andante in A flat major is wonderful – the piano takes the main tune and the cello accompanies with some interesting counterpoint before taking over and passing the tune to the violin. The second subject is a rather subdued affair; it is also rather lovely, as the piano winds its way behind the string themes. At around 5:50, the violin takes up a memorable and jaunty tune which is very happy and should make you grin. It’s wonderfully well-voiced between the instruments and played immaculately. There is no Scherzo here although the following Presto has a certain jokey lilt to it at the beginning before settling down to something more ‘sensible’. I particularly like the playing about 0:50 in by the violin which is charming and rather fun. There are some solo passages which are almost fugal in construction, which lead to the stop-start theme which makes up the bulk of the music here. There is a more restrained central section about 2 minutes in, which provides a nice contrast to the more powerful other motifs. There is a Schumannesque quality to the ending of the movement which puts me in mind of the March second movement of the E flat Piano quintet (Op.44). The finale, which has the tempo mark Lento, starts in quite a sinister and sad march-like way but doesn’t stay lento for long. At about 1:05, the pace picks up and things become far more energetic. After this, the movement has a driving theme behind it and bowls along at a fair speed. As elsewhere in this trio, the piano seems to have the bulk of the work to do but the string writing is certainly not underpowered and supplies a complex web of music of its own. I suppose the feeling here is akin to that found in Schumann’s chamber works. There is a generally unsettled feeling to the music which pinwheels around from one instrument to another in an interesting way, with interludes of happier writing. However, as the movement draws to a close, the unsettled feeling becomes more prevalent and gradually evolves to something much darker; the ending of the piece, after a very difficult sounding cadenza demanding a good deal of virtuosity from the pianist, is in C minor and oddly bleak.

The second trio dates from 1882 and is again in a minor key – this time D minor and is shorter than the first trio in duration. Interestingly, as the notes say, this is the revised version of the trio with some alterations to the string writing as recommended by the composer’s friend, Philipp Spitta (a biographer of Bach). This starts quietly with a tune on the cello which is tinged with sadness, but there are hints that something happier may break out at any minute. Things really start about a minute and a half in, when there is a very clever transition to more cheerful music, led by the strings. Much of the writing after this point seems to consist of a dialogue between the strings and the piano and some lovely melodic writing is the result. From here onwards, the atmosphere is generally much more contented. The movement is wonderfully constructed, as in the first trio, in sonata form with excellent contrasted episodes in the minor key which hint at an underlying tension just below the surface. That said, the more ethereal atmosphere of the ending is quite a surprise. The following Andante in just gorgeous; at the start, all 3 instruments play along with a soaring cantabile tune which gradually evolves into a passage for almost solo piano and then the creation of another tune on the violin. The theme at about 4 minutes in is fantastic and rather sentimental in nature and fits well in this mood of the movement. This puts me in mind of a song without words, the movement develops and creates something really rather splendid. The composer wrote a short poem to go along with this movement (and I quote here from the notes: “Please do make it as short as possible, then perhaps it’ll be supportable” – I’m sure it rhymes better in German!) The following Scherzo (not titled as such in the track listing) is in D minor and has another comical poem associated with it, again written by the composer – as before, I think it might make more sense in German. Anyway, the strings start pizzicato before the piano joins in and the violin and cello take off. There is nothing intrinsically jokey here, just a playful sense of fun. The pizzicato string writing crops up frequently as a sort of introduction to the main themes which are found here – again, Herzogenberg was clearly very fond of sonata form. The first few moments of the movement seem to be striving for something and run straight into the March-like Trio. This ‘March’ section is more sinister and mysterious but gains in strength and volume when the pizzicato theme returns heralding the return of the music from the start. The last few pages of the music are a sort of remembrance of the ‘March’ theme from the trio and the music drifts off quietly. The finale, an Allegro moderato is in D major and is more confident again, after the upset at the end of the Scherzo. Here all the instruments have plenty to do and they scurry along at quite a pace, with the piano underpinning the playing by the solo string instruments before joining in. Things speed up more at 2 minutes with some powerful writing for the instruments and a thoroughly enjoyable short section. After this, things quieten down significantly for a short meditative section, before there are flashes of virtuosity from the piano and the movement picks up speed again. From here on in, the music is positive, powerful and increasingly frenzied. The ending is strangely wrong-footed and the instruments seem to be playing off beat against each other before the piano drives the movement to an end with some seriously impressive and virtuosic playing. This makes a fitting conclusion to this interesting and contrasted work. Again, the performance is top notch throughout.

I advise anyone who likes piano trios to have a listen to this disc as it is a masterly example of how to write, perform and record for this medium. There is much delicate interplay between the instruments and the members of the Vienna Piano Trio clearly work extremely well together and their music making is exemplary throughout. This music itself is well-crafted and interesting music played very well. The recorded sound, as usual for MDG, is excellent and very clear. The cover notes are extensive and reveal a lot of interesting facts about this sorely neglected composer. This is a splendid recording of two rather special works and one I shall be returning to it often.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Bob Stevenson


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