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Édouard LALO (1823-1892)
Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op. 7 (1850?) [21:46]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 5 (1859) [18:52]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 (1839) [30:05]
Petrof Piano Trio
rec. Sound Studio HAML, Prague, 2012

The Petrof Piano Trio, founded in 2009, is the resident trio of the Petrof Piano Company -- which, despite its Russian-sounding name, is based in the Czech Republic, in Hradec Králové. This helps explain the Prague recording venue.

Édouard Lalo’s orchestral music and his opera Le Roi d’Ys place him firmly among the French Wagnerians. This early C minor Trio, however, stands in the line of Schumann and Brahms, but with a greater breadth and amplitude. The turbulent, dramatic outer movements are marked by an interplay of edgy string motifs, propelled by arpeggios and “boiling” figurations from the piano. Between those movements, the simple, singing Romance gradually builds into an affirmative, joyous climax, while, in the Scherzo, the piano feints at the major before the strings reclaim it for the minor.

From the opening cello phrase, searchingly intoned by cellist Kamil Žvak, this score receives an enthusiastic performance: incisive and driving in the outer movements, sympathetic and stylish in the central ones. Rhythmic address is consistently alert; contrasts of dynamic and mood, even between consecutive phrase, are adeptly realized. The finale’s back-and-forth motivic play is both incisive and gently rocking, hinting at a dance lilt.

As for the rest of the program, Bruch and Mendelssohn have frequently appeared together on disc, but their juxtaposition here does Bruch no favours. The C minor Trio is artfully assembled, but lacks the melodic appeal of the composer’s popular concerti. The first movement builds ‘symphonically’ from short motifs, but rhythmic backbone is in short supply, and the music elapses, leaving little impression. The Allegro assai scherzo is flowing rather than driving, with a surge in the Trio. The closing Presto begins promisingly, with a fanfare-like call to attention that generates the first theme-group. Eventually, however, the continuing rhythmic repetitions become tedious; only the episode beginning at 3:56, which goes off in a completely different direction, rouses interest for a bit. The players remain committed and passionate, despite the problems.

On the other hand, Mendelssohn’s C minor Trio, though yielding to his Octet in popularity, offers appealing, melodic themes within sturdy, well-wrought structures, thus neatly balancing Classical rigor and Romantic surge and sweep. Familiar characteristics of the composer’s style turn up: in the piano figurations, rippling in the Andante and rollicking in the Scherzo, recalling the Songs without Words; and in that through-composed Scherzo which, like that of the Octet, eschews a distinct Trio section.

The Petrof comes off slightly less well here than in the other works. The players’ dexterity -- particularly that of pianist Martina Schulmeisterová -- is never in doubt. They fill out the big musical gestures well, and their incisive rhythms still allow space for sensitive phrasing. By the finale, however, I was troubled by a lack of variety. The dynamics change at the appropriate structural joins, but the colour doesn’t; in the climaxes, the sonorities don’t expand or fill out. Schulmeisterová’s pianos, in particular, sound dutiful rather than hushed or delicate.

So we have one full-out success (Lalo), one partial success (Mendelssohn), and one piece that couldn’t be saved (Bruch). That averages out to a qualified recommendation, though I suspect selective downloading would be the best solution.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York (lighthouseopera.org)

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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