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The Leipzig Circle
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, op. 80 (1847) [26:42]
Niels GADE (1817-1890)
Novelletten, op. 29 (1853) [16:55]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, op. 66 [29:18]
Phoenix Piano Trio
rec. 2016, St John the Evangelist, Oxford, UK
STONE RECORDS 5060192780949 [72:55]

I daresay this isn’t the first recording to focus on the confluence of talent in Leipzig in the middle of the 19th century, but in the piano trio genre, it is certainly the first time that a Gade piece has been included with those of his “old friends” (Schumann’s words).

The Schumann Piano Quintet is one of my favourite chamber works, so I have always found it odd that I have struggled to warm to any of his three trios. Schumann’s description of his second trio was that it “makes a friendlier and more immediate impression” than the stormy first and the jaunty opening certainly bears witness to that. I’m pleased to report that the Phoenix Piano Trio is nudging me towards a greater appreciation with a performance of sparkle, charm and emotion.

The five miniatures that Gade named after the Schumann piano set are certainly a very appropriate inclusion as the influences of his “old friends” are very obvious. I will probably offend aficionados of the composer by saying that melodic invention wasn’t his strongest suit, but the alternating fast-slow movements are always enjoyable company with plenty of rhythmic vitality and interest. The fourth movement Larghetto con moto is particularly charming.

Because the Schumann and the Gade weren’t as familiar to me as the Mendelssohn (one of my favourites), it was there I chose to start which turned out to be the wrong choice. While the Phoenix performance is perfectly adequate, it didn’t really engage me, especially when compared to the Sitkovetsky Trio on BIS (review) and the Florestan Trio on Hyperion (review). It lacks the intensity of the former and the vivacity of the latter, and led me to put the disc aside for a couple of days.

I have one major, admittedly personal, reservation with the recording, which was particularly obvious in the Mendelssohn. I have written before about my dislike of violin playing that lacks warmth, and as I listened to the Mendelssohn, I was very distracted by the wiry, almost harsh sounds, particularly in louder or faster passages. When I read the booklet notes afterwards, I discovered that the violinist, Jonathan Stone, was a member of the Doric String Quartet, whose numerous recordings for Chandos have been lauded here and elsewhere … but not by me, as I found their tone to be always too harsh and wiry. Clearly this is a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”, and I was pleased in a way that I had an explanation of my reaction to the sound. It is less obvious in the Schumann, but still there. I will stick to my guns regarding the underpowered Mendelssohn interpretation, but the sound is probably not going to bother many others.

For me, a rather mixed bag, but the Schumann has encouraged me to listen to his other trios again.

David Barker

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