Johann Peter PIXIS (1788-1874)
Grand Piano Trio No. 1 in E flat, op. 75 [28:38]
Piano Trio No. 3 in B minor, op. 95 [25:05]
Trio Concertant No. 1 [11:10]
Leonore Piano Trio
rec. 2016, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
HYPERION CDA68207 [64:54]
David Barker’s earlier review provides a brief biography of Pixis, so I won’t provide one here.
As Jeremy Nicholas points out in his splendid booklet notes for this release: “If Pixis is remembered at all it is for his contribution to Liszt’s Hexameron”. “Pixis”, he continues, “was counted as one of the leading pianists of the day. To have been chosen by Liszt along with Thalberg, Czerny, Chopin and Herz to be one of the contributors to his Hexameron extravaganza was some kind of recognition and badge of honour. There were many other distinguished pianists in Paris at the time who might have had the invitation, though it must be admitted that Pixis is to Hexameron what Cui is to The Mighty Handful and Louis Durey to Les Six.” That last point is telling. Moreover, Nicholas does not stop to explore Liszt’s motives in his selection of collaborators for what was intended as thinly-disguised competition. No doubt he expected the empty bravura of Pixis’ variation to compare unfavourably with his own contribution (and that of his friend, Chopin). Nevertheless, Nicholas also makes the point that, having heard Howard Shelley’s performances of Pixis’ Piano Concertino, Op.68 and Piano Concerto, Op. 100 (Volume 58 in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series), he feels that “Pixis’ almost total obscurity was clearly unjustified”. So what does the present selection of chamber works of Pixis tell us?
Well, to start with, he was certainly fond of the piano trio as a medium. From about 150 works with opus numbers there are as many as seven “Grand Trios” for piano, violin, and cello, Opp. 75, 86, 95, 118, 129, 139 and 147. We have here the first and third of these, together with what is referred to as the “Trio Concertant No 1 sur des motifs du Colporteur composé par Onslow”, another collaborative effort – this time composed jointly with the brothers Bohrer (a capable violinist and ‘cellist) who were friends of Pixis.
The first trio, dating from 1825, is in E Flat major and is dedicated to Hummel. It is in three movements: Allegro con brio, Andante con moto and Finale al capriccio: Poco adagio – Presto. The first movement starts promisingly and I thought we might get something that anticipated Mendelssohn’s Op.49 Trio but this was not really the case. We are some way from the genius of Mendelssohn here and this music also sounds sub-Hummel to me (although David Barker felt the trios were better than those of Hummel). The first movement is pleasant enough but a bit four-square and rarely seems to stray far from the home key. My first impression was that there is little variation in texture but a subsequent hearing suggests this was not really true - there are several passages for piano alone, for example. Whilst I’m sure the Leonore Trio are observing all the marked dynamics it sounds as though the composer didn’t mark many, so there is relatively little apparent dynamic variation either. The members of the trio are spread evenly across the soundstage and they are recorded fairly closely, in a rather dry acoustic, so the rather in-your-face result – whilst perfectly decent, well-balanced and clear – slightly compounds both these issues.
The second movement starts with a folk-like motif which, the score suggests, has been lifted from a Pixis opera – although it would seem that the opera referenced either was never completed (if it was ever composed) or has simply not yet been unearthed. The motif provides the basis for filigree decoration by the piano, before we get to the unusual Poco adagio section - followed by a cadenza-like piano sequence that signals the transition to the third movement. The Presto finale is a little more interesting than what has gone before and it finally speeds up to a prestissimo conclusion which is nicely managed here. That said, in order to justify any comparison with Mendelssohn – and despite the pianist’s strong contribution - it strikes me that the finale, in particular, ideally needs to scamper a bit more. Asking a lot, I know, but it would be instructive to hear a livelier and/or more challenging interpretation, say from somebody like Stephen Hough or Olli Mustonen. Then again, the present highly capable performance is unlikely to be bettered any time soon.
The Trio no.3 in B minor, from 1829, comes next. The first movement, marked Allegro vivace, has an emphatic beginning, after which we get the violin and ’cello playing separately at times, so there is more evident variation in texture. The movement, however, belongs principally to the piano. The second movement is an Andante con moto alla marcia which is actually a set of variations based around a vaguely comical march theme. Once again, the music rarely strays from the home key. That said, the third movement is a Scherzo: Vivace – Trio and it is all set in the rather distant key of E flat major. Again, the comparison with Mendelssohn arises and Jeremy Nicholas comments on the similarities. I will accept this here – but I wouldn’t have described the music as “enchanting”. The finale is marked Alla mauresque: Allegro. According to Nicholas “It is a lively, attractive (and pianistically demanding) dance movement which cannot fail to lift the spirits”. The playing is very clean here but it would probably have lifted my spirits more had it been given a somewhat lighter touch and I can’t help wondering if recording these pieces using a period piano might have been more appropriate.
The short third trio on the disc was premiered in 1827. My supposition is that it occupies a place in the output of Pixis rather like the FAE sonata occupied in the works of Schumann or Brahms (so it has no opus number). However, rather than each contribute a movement, the three collaborators seem to have developed the work together, apparently taking turns to add something, but focusing on their own parts. The end result is rather different from the other two trios presented here and provides some useful variety. The work is ostensibly divided into three movements but the first, in G major - marked Introduzione: Andante - is just that, an introduction. Here the two strings tend to play together, with the piano accompanying and occasionally providing brief solos. The effect is rather as if Paganini were performing with a ’cellist hand-in-hand and the musicians bring it off extremely well.
The work seems to have inspired several other composers (notably Kuhlau and Kalkbrenner) to base their own works on its themes – as opposed to the unassuming melody in duple time, drawn from Onslow’s completely forgotten opera: Le Colporteur (the Peddlar), that provides the basis of the D major second movement, Allegretto con variazioni. Here, as might be expected, each instrument takes turns to showboat whilst the others accompany. Finally, the music shifts briefly into E flat major for the introduction to the short concluding Allegro (in G major) which, again, has strong hints of Paganini.
So, on this evidence, can Pixis’ obscurity be regarded as justifiable? My feeling is that there is not quite enough inspiration or real originality here to make his neglect surprising – but it is good to have the opportunity to make an assessment of his music and some of it, the collaborative trio in particular, is quite entertaining. In spite of my slight reservations the excellent Leonore Trio make a good case for these trios (possibly the best that is ever likely to be made) and they are very decently recorded.
David Barker and Jim Westhead