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Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909)
Piano Trio No 1 in C major, Op 59 (1882)
Alfredo Casella (1883-1947)
Siciliana e Burlesca, Op 23b (1914, arr. trio Casella, 1917)
Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)
Sonate, Op 28 No 2 (1792, transcr. Casella, 1936)
Hèsperos Piano Trio
rec. 2021, MetròRec Studio, Riva del Garda, Italy
TACTUS TC850006 [62]

When I requested this for review, I had in mind that the programme was a rather strange combination, especially with the “earliest” work (Clementi) being placed last, and accordingly was expecting to be somewhat critical. However, as you see from the details above, the Clementi sonata (for keyboard with accompaniment) was given new life by Alfredo Casella in 1936 (making it the most recent work), in a transcription for piano trio which, at the very least, establishes a better balance between the three instruments. So the programme does make sense, and I apologise for my pre-judgement.

Martucci’s two trios were written in close succession, the second written the year after the first. I have reviewed a Naxos disc of the pair and my comment back then (2015) was that while they were fairly similar, the first was “far and away the better”. I also said that I wasn’t bowled over by either of them, and thought a better trio might bring them to life more. Seven years on, I am having much more positive thoughts about this first trio. It is very Brahmsian, ironic given that Martucci was a Wagnerphile. While it doesn’t have the never-ending sequence of glorious melodies that the Brahms trios do, the cantabile opening is quite beautiful, and the whole work has definitely impressed me a lot more than before. I feel that this is due in part to the performance: it is immediately apparent in the singing tone of the cello in the opening pages, which is far better than that in the Naxos version, the Scherzo is given real fizz, and the overall effect has been to move it up my piano trio rankings quite a long way. I’m not suggesting that the Hèsperos Piano Trio ranks up there with the Sitkovetsky Trio, but I am impressed.

One thing that did strike me was the timing: the Hèsperos Piano Trio takes 39:56, more than six minutes longer than Trio Vega on Naxos. More than half this difference is from the first movement: 13:44 vs 9:56. Listening to the two versions, it didn’t strike me that the tempos were that different, so I tracked down the score on IMSLP, and found that there is a substantial repeat which Hèsperos takes and Vega doesn’t. While it is the beautiful opening that gets repeated, and it is what the composer wanted, I tend to side with Trio Vega.

Casella’s Siciliana e Burlesca (being the names of the two movements) was originally composed for flute and piano, written for an annual competition held by the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome. He then adapted it for piano trio, giving the flute part to the violin, and adding the cello as extra texture – one might describe it as a violin sonata with cello accompaniment. The work, as befits its era, is very different to the Martucci, neoclassical rather than Romantic, mild dissonance in places and more about virtuosity and rhythm than melody.

Casella described his transcription/adaptation of the Clementi sonata as taking a work of quality lost to obscurity because of its very basic instrumentation, and making it “more elaborate”. He left the piano part mostly unchanged, but overhauled the string parts completely, giving them independence from the piano, in line with the ethos of the piano trio as we recognise it now. However, the basic spirit of the piece remains; it is the soundworld of Haydn, not a work of the 1930s. There are a few isolated moments in the first movement, when the violin sound is less than ideal, but they pass quickly and don’t return. It is an enjoyable work, though perhaps its slightness does make for something of an anti-climax to finish the disc – it might have been better programmed first, after all.

The booklet notes are very comprehensive – the English translation runs to eleven pages and rather unusually it is all about the music and the composers, and not the performers. That’s the good news, the bad news is that the style is very wordy, and in some places, impenetrable. The author, Angelo Fotello, is a prominent Italian music critic and journalist, so his style is clearly well accepted in Italy. However, I found it very hard going. Let me give you a few quotes to give you a sense of what I mean: “the magnetising role of the black-and-white keys is carried out with an unsparing use of soloistic participation”, “the piece has a personality that is two-faced … but also peculiar” and “This recording … is a tiny artistic compensation, and an aesthetic and formal clarification”. I have checked with a colleague, fluent in Italian, and the translation itself is fine. Don’t misunderstand me, among all these metaphors and over-elaborate phrases is a lot of good information.

I’ve reviewed three Tactus recordings before, and have been more impressed by the label’s enterprise (who else is likely to record the trios of Bossi, Fano and Zanella), than the performances or the sound quality. However, here I must applaud all three aspects.

I enjoyed this much more than I expected, and the Martucci will definitely get more plays in the future than it did.

David Barker

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