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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63 (1847) [30:36]
Trio No. 2 in F, Op. 80 (1847) [26:54]
Trio No. 3 in G minor, Op. 110 (1851) [26:48]
Phantasiestücke, Op. 88 (1842) [18:45]
Horszowski Trio
rec. 2017, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York.
AVIE RECORDS AV2405 [57:30 + 45:33]

The Horszowski Trio’s debut with French piano trios on the Bridge label (review) was well received, but in turning to Schumann’s three Piano Trios they are entering a field in which there is even more competition for top spot. The musicians are well recorded here, coming to us at quite close range, which is appropriate for the intimacy of chamber music. The fine acoustic of the American Academy if Arts and Letters is more of a shadowy presence than a decisive factor, but there is sense of space that prevents the whole thing becoming claustrophobic.

The bustling energy of the Trio in D minor Op. 63 is nicely portrayed, with plenty of secretive quietness to contrast with those typically explosive outbursts. This is chamber music on a grand scale, with dialogues and thematic development as extensive as any Romantic concerto or symphony. I like the restraint in Jesse Mills’ violin tone, with expressive vibrato that doesn’t distract. Raman Ramakrishnan’s cello could almost be more present in this regard, but with a decent balance there is a fine feel of democratic discourse in this performance. That third slow movement, Lansam, mit inniger Empfindung is well played but could perhaps have a little more intensity, but this is very subjective.

Composed in the same year, the Trio No. 2 in F, Op. 80 shares its predecessor’s nervy tensions, but releases us from a brooding minor key into a more upbeat F major. The song-like melodies that emerge in the lovely Mit innigen Ausdruk are kept under a fairly tight leash and you might prefer something a little more extrovert at certain points, but the atmosphere here is still rather special. The third movement with its canon that uses Clara’s theme is full of amorous expressiveness while also keeping a relaxed nonchalance that points towards Schumann’s happier state of mind, and there is a palpable sense of joy in the finale; Nicht zu rasch indeed, but with plenty of compact impetus.

The Trio No. 3 in G minor, Op. 110 comes from Schumann’s late period, bearing in mind that he would still only have been just into his 40s at the time. Raman Ramakrishnan’s booklet notes comment on the “passion, drama, and tender lyricism” in the first two movements, the moving eloquence of the Ziemlich langsam second movement having the potential to be particularly moving, though my ear was drawn to Rieko Aizawa’s pedalling, which might have allowed for more transparency during the opening. There is a restless and off-beat character in the third movement through which these musicians are a secure guide, lending a feeling of expectations to passages in which not much appears to be happening. Every bar serves its purpose here however, and inventive modernity lives close to folksy eclecticism in this work.

The Phantasiestücke, Op. 88 comes from that happy time not long after Robert and Clara were married, and these four movements are “full of fun, beauty, and good spirits; even when they are sad, they are smiling.” The Romanze is given a charming sense of hesitancy here which I haven’t noticed so much in other recordings, and the playful linking of folk style with counterpoint in the Humoreske has plenty of sly nudges and winks.

Collectors looking for Schumann’s complete Piano Trios may find themselves looking at pianist Matteo Fossi with members of Quartetto Savinio on the Brilliant Classics label (review). These are well recorded, with a bit more oomph in the piano low notes and a slightly more concert-like perspective. Missing the Phantasiestücke but still on 2 CDs there’s Ilya Gringolts and friends on Onyx (review). This is another well-produced and admirably performed set in performances that are more prepared to pull the tempi around as an expressive device, something less of a feature in the Horszowski Trio’s interpretations. With plenty of added value there is a Complete Works for Piano Trio on EMI/Warner with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes alongside Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff (review). These musicians are a bit more extrovert than the Horszowski Trio, so if you prefer more red-blooded accounts that don’t go over the top then this is a contender. We should of course never forget the Beaux Arts Trio in this repertoire, whose distinguished recording of these works has in no way dated, and whose slow movements are hard to beat. The third movement of Op. 63 for instance, which is a touch more sustained and profound than the Horszowski’s Trio.

Out of those mentioned I would hesitate to choose an absolute favourite, though I’ll always have a soft spot for the Beaux Arts Trio. The Horszowski Trio can hold its own in distinguished company and I’ve enjoyed this set a great deal. There are perhaps some moments where a fraction less introversion might have freed things up a bit, but this might be a side effect of the recording, which is close enough to give you the feeling that concert-hall projection is at times being contained somehow. The finale of the Phantasiestücke gives the lie to this sensation however, and turning up the volume certainly helps. I’ll take a pinch of introversion over blowsy over-cooked effulgence in Schumann any day, and will be certain to have these discs close to hand for a dose of decent chamber music from now on.

Dominy Clements

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