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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8 (1854, rev.1888) [36:26]
Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 (1882) [29:14]
Julius Katchen (piano), Josef Suk (violin), JŠnos Starker (cello)
rec. 27 July 1968, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, UK
Presto CD
DECCA 421 152-2 [65:40]

This Presto CD is another exact replica of a now deleted disc of two classic performances. Brahms wrote three piano trios. There is also a fourth in A major attributed to Brahms. These celebrated musicians recorded all three authentic trios which I have on a budget Double Decca with the Cello Sonata No.1. It seems slightly strange that what was a mid-price CD is now full price when a similar priced double contained all the trios. In any event it’s a great opportunity to revisit and re-evaluate. In every way this release duplicates the original 1988 release with excellent notes by Lindsay Kemp and striking pre-Raphaelite detail from “Mariana” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) on the front-sleeve. This first major batch of vintage Decca chamber music classic recordings, several of which I purchased at the time, were marked as “ADRM-Digital Re-master to Audiophile Standards”. Unsurprisingly the sound is really first class with the piano centre, cello to the right and the violin to the left all nicely placed within the highly suitable acoustic of Snape Maltings.

When I had the pleasure of hearing the second CD by Trio Isimsiz which included Brahms’ First Piano Trio (review on Rubicon) I referred to recordings by the Beaux Arts Trio, two sets from Philips, the Florestan Trio on Hyperion which I rate very highly, as well as the present classic. Returning to this Presto CD I’m totally overwhelmed by the beauty, clarity and, above all, the players’ sincerity in the first trio. This was the one which Brahms had the opportunity to revise in 1888 when his publisher Fritz Simrock re-published much of his work which gave him the opportunity for revision. From the opening bars we know that everything will be right and we can relax and enjoy. Julius Katchen begins, centre-stage before Janos Starker joins and then the trio is completed by Josef Suk, great grandson of Antonin Dvorak. The opening Allegro con brio always puts me in mind of the Schubert Octet but there’s also the influence of Beethoven’s Archduke. If this is inevitably a romantic approach I would also mention the later (1987/89) set by Trio Fontenay on a bargain double CD (review by Simon Thompson) from Teldec Warner/Apex. It’s a version that I also rate highly as much as the recently acquired Pires/Dumay/Wang recordings of the present two, in a complete Maria Joao Pires box from DG. The whole Katchen-Suk-Starker account is total perfection and if you don’t know the work then this a great opportunity to remedy the situation. Brahms may not have been a totally successful quartet composer but there is no doubt of his prowess here.

The same virtues are present in the performance of the second piano trio which is redolent of Brahms’ autumnal period. By then he had overcome his earlier self-criticism, that same that famously saw him destroying many scores written before he was 30. He wrote to Simrock “You have not yet had such a beautiful trio from me and very likely not yet published one to equal it within the last ten years”. I particularly like the second movement, Andante con moto, a set of variations which like those in his First Sextet (Op.18) are based on a folk-tune. It’s remarkable how three instruments can develop so successfully this brooding and haunting melody. I must mention again how well the sound is captured by the eminent engineer for many Decca classic recordings, Keith Wilkinson. The unease that always seem to underpin Brahms’ works is present in the Scherzo before a romantic melody emerges which still has fire in the belly. The Allegro giocoso is the most intricate of this trio and doesn’t give up all it’s merits on first hearing. Following these supreme performances, one really wants the third Piano Trio.

Overall these are truly desirable performances which any lover of piano trios and Brahms must own. As I’ve stated, for me, the ideal is the Double Decca with all three trios plus two more works. However if you want just the first two, then this will suit very well; in those terms an extremely worthwhile reissue.
David R Dunsmore

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