An A to Z of the Piano Trio Repertoire: “B” Composers Part 2
by David Barker
Review Index: "B" Composers Survey Index
As I mentioned in my Introduction, it was a concert performance of the First Trio by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897, Germany) which sparked my love for the combination. It was by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, and I was rather surprised to be quite underwhelmed when I listened to their recording of the work recently. As with Beethoven, I will not be attempting to list or discuss all recordings of the Brahms trios.
The three Brahms trios are among the most recorded in the genre, and rightly so. He, of course, substantially revised his first trio, but did not destroy the original one. As a consequence, recordings of both versions exist. How do you recognise which is which, if it isn’t labelled as original (1854) or revised (1889)? Simply the duration: Brahms drastically trimmed the work in the revision, especially the first and last movements. If the finale is in the vicinity of nine minutes, you have the original version. The first movement is less reliable as some trios choose not to observe the repeats. There are a number of recordings of the original version, some presented alongside the revised one for reasons of historical curiosity. In the table below, listing details of the works discussed here, I have indicated the original version with an asterisk. There is also an A major trio, discovered three decades after his death, which has not been universally accepted as having been written by Brahms, but it has a number of recordings. You can read more about its history on Wikipedia.
My gold standard for Brahms 1 & 2 has been for a long time the 1968 Decca recording of Julius Katchen, Josef Suk & Janos Starker (they also recorded No. 3). After some wide-ranging listening for this survey, I find myself surprised to that only one recording – Maria Joăo Pires, Augustin Dumay and Jian Wang – make a challenge, and indeed is the victor. This survey, in toto, will undoubtedly provide me with many rewards in terms of new works and recordings: to find a new pinnacle for Brahms 1 & 2 is certainly one of them.
The Florestan Trio has been a constant in my piano trio listening for almost as long as the Brahms, but I have only recently made the acquaintance of their recording of these works. This was the result of a reservation related to my preference for a more Romantic than Classical Brahms. I felt that the poise and elegance of the Florestans would place them in the latter camp, and so it has eventuated. It is beautifully played, but it is Brahms as Classicist, and I found myself wanting to hear a little more passion and drama. If, like me, you prefer Emil Gilels in the Brahms concertos to Leon Fleisher, for example, then you will almost certainly have a similar view on the Florestans. The reverse is, of course, true.
I listened to a number of prominent recordings, and found that the divide between Classical and Romantic approaches could be applied readily to most. It is, of course, a very subjective way, but I feel there is no doubt that most trios have decided on either the restrained (Classical) or passionate (Romantic) path. I should make it clear that it is not a matter of tempo, rather dynamics and accents that distinguishes the two.
It would appear that the Classical approach is the current thinking, as most of the recent recordings belong in this camp. Of those, the Chung, Gould, Grieg, Storioni and Wanderer Trios can all be recommended along with the Florestans. While I personally might prefer a different approach, that didn’t stop me finding many pleasures in these performances.
There were two Classical style recordings with which I had major problems. The Altenberg Trio Wien seemed to have a train to catch, as everything was played at a faster tempo than the norm. By way of illustration, they run through the First Trio (revised version) in under 34 minutes, when almost every other version I checked is over 36 minutes. A couple of minutes in well over half an hour may not seem much, but every accent is simply ploughed through as though it was not there. The subtle pauses to emphasise phrases that most everyone employs are either ignored or abbreviated so that they miss the point. Clearly, the Altenbergs had something very definite in mind, but it wasn’t Brahms for me. The other problem one was the Gutman Trio, also fast, though much more characterised. Unfortunately, they seemed to see Brahms as another Mendelssohn, which isn’t my picture of Brahms either. In the Gutman’s defence, I will cite the review of my colleague Ian Lace who described their performances as “winning”.
Obviously Romantic school recommendations are dominated by the two I have already put at the top of my tree. Others that I have enjoyed are the Munich Trio (despite one of the players having an apparently severe sinus problem), Trio Solisti (except for an overly rushed trio section in the scherzo of Trio 1, the Macquarie Trio (though some of the tempos are perhaps a little broad), and the Eroica Trio (no reservations).
The Beaux Arts Trio have recorded the Brahms twice: the first, from 1967, is available as the “Complete Piano Trios” on a Phillips/Decca Duo with the clarinet & horn trios. The second, from 1987, has Trios 1-3 and the A major and is part of the Originals series. Their interpretation mellowed over the two decades, moving from an early entry in the Classical camp, to a broader, more poetic and Romantic one. Do I have a preference? I find myself liking elements of each, but neither enough to add them to my collection.
There is one recording which eludes my attempt to place it in my Classical/Romantic divide, and perhaps it is for that reason that I have yet to make up my mind as to whether it is one of the best or one of the worst. I realise how ridiculous that statement must seem, but it is precisely how I feel. I am referring to the recording by the renowned soloists Nicholas Angelich & the brothers Capuçon. Two of my colleagues have nominated it for Musicweb International Recommends and a reviewer from another publication, whose opinion I usually agree with, has described it as the version he would take with him when he dies. I have also seen the word “controversial” applied to it. My first impression was negative: it seemed to be Brahms filtered through Ravel and Fauré. I decided to give it a longer audition, and some of my reservations began to disappear. The feeling of Frenchness remains, which I don’t believe is a case of imposing my knowledge of the origin of the players (Angelich is American, but educated in Paris) on their interpretation. Theirs is a leisurely and almost gentle take on Brahms, without losing the essential Romantic passion. I have a sense of them showing me aspects of the works I’d not heard before, which I previously encountered with Joyce Yang and the Alexander Quartet with the Schumann quintet. There too I had an initial sense of discomfort – “surely this isn’t the work I know” – followed by revelation. I haven’t reached the latter stage quite yet with this one, but it does seem to be on the cards. Whatever my final thoughts, you definitely need to listen to first (try Spotify) before purchasing.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Trio Altenberg Wien (1-3 & 1*) Challenge Classics CC72023 -- Beaux Arts Trio (1-3) Philips/Decca 4383652 Clarinet & horn trios Beaux Arts Trio (1-3 & A) Philips/Decca 4780338 -- Chung Trio (1) Decca 421 4252 Mendelssohn 1 Eroica Trio (1 & 2) EMI/Warner 5571995 Arrangements Florestan Trio (1-3) Hyperion CDD22082 Clarinet & horn trios Gould Piano Trio (1-3, 1* & A) Quartz QTZ2067 Clarinet & horn trios Grieg Piano Trio (1 & 2) Simax PSC1099 -- Gutman Trio (1 & 3) Brilliant Classics 94474 -- Kalichstein-Loredo-Robinson Trio (1-3) Vox CD3X3029 Dvorak 4, Mendelssohn 1 & 2 Macquarie Trio (1-3, 1* & A) ABC 4726682 -- Trio Solisti (1 & 3) Marquis MAR329 -- Storioni Trio (1 & 2) Pentatone PTC5186328 -- Trio Wanderer (1-3) Harmonia Mundi HMC901915/6 Piano quartet 1 Angelich, Capuçon & Capuçon (1-3) Virgin/Erato 5456535 -- Istomin, Stern & Rose (1-3) Sony Various releases -- Katchen, Suk & Starker Decca 4211522 (1 & 2) -- 4480922 (1-3) Cello sonata 2, FAE sonata Pires, Dumay & Wang (1 & 2) DG 4470552 --
Gaetano Braga (1829-1907, Italy) is not the Gaetano one thinks of when contemplating nineteenth century Italian composers. His Trio De Salon is absolutely what it says on the label, and is a perfectly charming example of that style of music. The other chamber works on the recording are equally entertaining, particularly the Soirée à Naples for the unusual combination of three cellos and piano.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Sabatini, Morena, Di Illio Bongiovanni GB5119 Chamber miniatures
Alexander Borodin (1883-1887, Russia) wrote a number of chamber works early in his career, whilst developing his voice, before heading off into chemistry. The much loved Second String Quartet comes from his maturity, so don’t expect the same level of inspiration in this trio from 1861. It is apparently incomplete, the final movement being lost. I have the Moscow Trio’s recording from its original release on a long-gone label (Chant du Monde), now reissued by Brilliant in multiple packages (review). I have listened to samples from the Praga recording, and I must say that it gives the music more energy, but whether you wish to pay full price to get this relatively minor work will depend on whether you wish to explore more of Borodin’s chamber music.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Kinsky Trio Prague Praga DSD250288 String sextet & trio Moscow Trio Brilliant Classics 93373 Borodin chamber music 94410 Borodin Edition 94712 Russian Piano Trios Romantic Trio Russian Compact Disc RCD10402 Tchaikovsky Emil Gilels, Dmitri Tziganov, Sergey Shirinsky Doremi DHR7921 Collection
Max Bruch (1838-1920, Germany) wrote most of his chamber music late in his career, though not this trio. It dates from 1858, much influenced by Mendelssohn and only occasionally gives hints of his mature works. It must also be said that the piano was not his instrument; accordingly this work’s best parts are for the strings. Recordings are fairly scarce, and not from any well-known group. The only one reviewed in these pages is the Petrof Trio on Nimbus, which was well received (review ~ review).
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Arensky Trio Antes BM319146 Brahms: String sextet 1 (arr. trio) Trio Estampe Arties AREC002 8 Pieces Petrof Trio Nimbus NI6219 Lalo 1, Mendelssohn 1 Catherine Wilson & Friends/Ensemble Vivant Doremi DHR71134 Glick: Old Toronto Klezmer Suite, Mendelssohn: Piano sextet Opening Day 9359 Yuval Trio Centaur CRC2374 Chajes, Pfitzner Romeo 7225 Dvorak 2, C Schumann
Léon Böellmann (1862-1897, France) won a prize from the Société des Compositeurs in Paris with his trio written two years before his death. It sits firmly in the Saint-Saëns school, in that it is well-crafted, elegant and charming. Given the equally attractive couplings, including arrangements for trio on the MDG release – it is not clear by whom – of two of his organ miniatures Les heures mystiques, this can certainly be recommended.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Trio Parnassus MDG 30317552 Piano quartet, Pieces for cello & piano, Les heures mystiques Prunyi, Banfalvi, Fehervari Marco Polo 8223524 Piano quartet
I expected more from the trio of Tomás Bretón (1850-1923, Spain), both in quality and Spanish character. It is a work of his maturity (1891) and was sufficiently interesting to attract three of my colleagues to review the Naxos recording. While none of them was falling over themselves to proclaim a masterwork, I imagined something with more colour and interest. The competition is Naxos versus itself, and the older Marco Polo recording certainly loses out, though if you want his quartet, there are no alternatives. The Four Spanish Pieces are simply salon pieces, a pleasant if uninspiring way to spend twenty minutes.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) LOM Trio (trio & pieces) Naxos 8570713 -- Oravecz, New Budapest Qt (trio) Marco Polo 8223745 String quartet
Marco Bossi (1861-1925, Italy) is best known for his organ music, and I can’t say that his two trios, written in 1896 and 1901, were particularly memorable (review). They are certainly written in the grand style, particularly the Trio sinfonico at more than 35 minutes, but unfortunately there isn’t sufficient content to sustain such large works. I have listened to the Tactus recording fully, and it is compromised by terrible sound quality. Sampling the Hungaroton suggests that it is somewhat better in that regard.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Hungarian Piano Trio Hungaroton HCD32293 -- SchuberTrio Tactus TC862704 --
There is a fascinating trio by Francisco Braga (1868-1945, Brazil), written in either 1905 or 1937, depending on which source you read. Alas, its only recording seems to be unavailable, though it has been put on Youtube; hence I have included it in my Wishlist.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Trio Brasileiro LAMI ?? Gnatli, Lacerda, Prado
Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937, France) was forced by the attitudes of the time to publish under the name “Mel”. Her two miniatures for trio – Soir and Matin – written in 1907, are elegant, tuneful and very French. The MDG recording has the advantage with her two fine piano quartets. There is also a Suite Orientale, which was written with the option of flute instead of violin, and it is only the flute version that has been recorded.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Trio George Sand Zig Zag Territoires ZZT120101 Faure, Ravel Mozart Piano Trio MDG 6431424 Piano quartets
The music of Frank Bridge (1879-1941, Britain) underwent a drastic change, far more than a simple evolution, after the First World War. His warm Romantic style became cold, brittle and angst-ridden. The Phantasie Trio won the 1907 Cobbett competition, and is everything you might expect from his earlier style. John France in his review of the Naxos release describes it as “a sunshine work”. The second trio, from 1928, is a very different matter. A critic writing about the premiere commented that Bridge had “put technical interest before aesthetic pleasure”. It is regarded by some as his finest chamber composition, by others as very hard going. If you have read either of the previous instalments of this survey, you will know to which view I ascribe. The Miniatures come from the year after the Phantasie, and find Bridge wearing his folksong/salon music hat. They were apparently written (in three sets of three) for one of his pupils and her two sisters to play – lucky them.
If you want all Bridge’s music for trio, then the well-performed Naxos disc is a bargain. The other option is the Dussek trio on Meridian, though Rob Barnett suggests their cool performance is not as well suited to the pre-war works. The Dartington Trio on Hyperion Helios dispense with the Miniatures, bringing in the Phantasy Quartet, another Cobbett work, and the recording has been very well received. If you are principally interested in the Phantasie, then Nick Barnard described the Dimension Trio’s performance as the finest he has heard.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Cantamen (1) BMS BMS418CD Friskin: Phantasie, Ireland: Phantasie trio, Moeran Dartington Trio (1 & 2) Hyperion CDH55063 Phantasy quartet Dimension Trio (1) Champs Hill CHRCD060 Ireland: Phantasie trio, Schoenberg: Verklarte nacht, Suk: Elegy Dussek Trio (all) Meridian CDE84290 -- Hartley Trio (1) Heritage HTGCD218 Clarke: Trio, Viola & sonata, Ireland: Phantasie trio London Bridge Ens (1) Dutton CDLX7205 Phantasy quartet, Songs, Scherzetto Primavera Trio (1) Centaur CRC2318 Campo, Martin Tunnell Trio (2 & Miniatures) Lyrita SRCD302 Phantasy quartet, String quartets 3 & 4 Benjamin Britten, Yehudi Menuhin, Maurice Gendron (2) BBC Legends BBCL41342 Beethoven 5, Mozart 6 Stephen Prutsman, Hiroko Yajima, Lowri Blake (2) Pearl 9610 Cello sonata, Spring song Ashley Wass, Jack Liebeck, Alexander Chaushian (all) Naxos 8570792 --
The life of Lili Boulanger (1893-1918, France) is one of the great sad stories of classical music. I’m surprised that no one has made an arthouse movie telling it. Her Deux Pieces – D'un soir triste and D'un matin de printemps – exist in various forms, including orchestral, and it is not entirely clear in which form they were originally composed. They were among her last compositions, and are not sweet and delicate miniatures that a stereotypical view might suggest. There is drama, intensity, liveliness and great feeling. It is hard to know why the ATOS Trio recording omits D’un soir triste, when there is clearly space for it. The Trio George Sand recording was well received by our reviewer (review) but is alas no longer available.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) ATOS Trio (matin) Farao 108073 Chaminade 2, Debussy, Francaix Trio des Alpes Dynamic CDS7717 Beach: trio & songs; Clarke Boulanger Trio Ars Produktion ARS38045 Faure, Saint-Saens 2 Trio George Sand Integral Classics INT221155 Debussy Monte Piano Trio Genuin GEN15369 Ireland: Phantasie, Mahler: Piano quartet, Rachmaninov 1, Shostakovich 1 Süssmann, Wanzhen, Tetzlaff C-Avi Music 8553295 N Boulanger: Pieces; Debussy: Violin sonata, Intermezzo, Hindemith: String trio 2
Agustí Borgunyó (1894-1967, Spain) was a Catalan composer, who spent much of his career in the United States. His miniature Idil-li (yes, it does mean idyll) was written in his youth – the notes are no more specific than that – and is very much as the name implies. It does rather make me wish he had written something more substantial for the combination.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) LOM Trio La Ma de Guido LMG2065 Gerhard 1, Granados
Emil Bohnke (1888-1928, Poland) was a late Romantic whose trio, published in 1920, is thought to date several years before. The only recording seems to be out of print, though possibly available from some online stores. I haven’t heard even samples of it.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Trio Alkan MDG 3250531 String quartet
The music of York Bowen (1884-1961, Britain) is undergoing a deserved renaissance with a number of labels contributing to the cause. He wrote three trios, which span much of his compositional life. The first, in d minor, is a single movement written in his teens, the Rhapsody from post-WW1 and the third, in e minor, after WWII. My pick is the Rhapsody trio, which has the best balance of lyricism and energy. The excellent Chandos recording, with two clarinet chamber works of equal quality, is the only place to get all three (review). I haven’t heard the Dutton release, but my colleague Michael Cookson has recommended it highly, and given a detailed analysis of the two mature works. It has been re-issued at a bargain price bundled with the first volume of his chamber music.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Endymion Ens (Rhapsody & E minor) Dutton CDLX7115 Horn quintet Gould Trio (all) Chandos CHAN10805 Clarinet trio & quintet
Alan Bush (1900-1995, Britain) wrote wrote his Concert Studies in 1947 (thanks to Peter on the Messageboard for letting me know about this). I haven't heard them but they have been well described and received by my colleagues (review ~~ review). While the ASV label is long since gone, this release is still listed on Amazon. The choice between the two recordings is fairly clear: Romantic or middle-twentieth centiry British.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Barbican Trio ASV CDDCA646 Ireland: Phantasie, Mendelssohn 1 Music Group of London Lyrita SRCD256 Bush: Piano works; Berkeley: Sextet, sonatina; Rawsthorne: Clarinet quartet
Leo Brouwer (b. 1939, Cuba) is best known for his guitar music, but he is prolific in other genres, including two works for trio: Manuscrito antiguo and Sones y danzones. Both have impressed me on sampling through Spotify. There are occasional harsh dissonances, but rarely do they last long and are smoothed out by interesting rhythms and gentle melodies. Neither release is widely available, which is a shame.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Trio Arbos (Sones) Ensayo 9821 Gianneo 2, Piazzolla: Oblivion, Muerte Trio Bretón (Manuscrito) Several SCD818 José Turina, Joaquin Turina 2
The late Arthur Butterworth (1923-2014, Britain) was a valued contributor to this website, and an somewhat under-appreciated composer, writing in a pared-back Romantic style, with Sibelius frequently mentioned as influence. His two trios are from the later part of his career – 1983 & 2004 – and Hubert Culot describes the release as most desirable. They strike me as being slow to offer up their qualities, being tonal and conservative, but lacking somewhat in melodic interest.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Terroni Trio Dutton CDLX7164 Viola sonata
The two trios of Sylvie Bodorova (1954-, Czech) – Prefigurations (1983 - review) and Megiddo (2001 - review) – are predominantly forbidding and bleak, and not really to my taste, but I do perceive a quality in them, so that those who are of a more modernist bent than me, should enjoy, if that is the correct word, them.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Eben Trio (Prefigurations) Arco Diva UP01432 Mahler: Piano quartet, Semtana, Suk: Elegy Puella Trio (Megiddo) Arco Diva UP01142 Eben, Fiala
Kenji Bunch (b. 1973, USA) is a prolific composer writing in an uncomplicated idiom, incorporating pop simplicity and jazz harmonies and rhythms within classical forms. Swing Shift is somewhere between contemporary classical and contemporary jazz: the subtitle of Groovebox Variations should give you some hint as to the nature of the work. I quite liked its verve, but I wasn't hearing it as a piano trio. Dies Irie and Magic Hour are beautifully lyrical, but in a fairly simple style. Slow Dance, his most recorded work, is more complex and interesting: the Trio Arbos version has been reviewed here. The Fantasy on Porgy and Bess has been described in reviews as "resourceful and suave". It's not too difficult to work out what you wil be getting, but if that appeals, you may find it hard to track down, as it seems not to have been picked up by Warner Classics after their acquisition oif the EMI catalogue.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Ahn Trio (Slow dance) Warner Classics 5570222 Bernstein, Bunch: Concerto, Ewazen: Diamond world, Piazzolla: Oblivion; arrangements Ahn Trio (Dies Irie, Magic Hour) RCA 886972720722 Lullaby for my Favorite Insomniac Trio Arbos (Slow dance) Non Profit Music NPM1012 Schoenfield: Cafe music, Grundman: Walk, Kats-Chernin: Calliope dreaming, Mozetich: Scales Atlanta Chamber Players MSR Classics MS1190 Harbison: Songs, Della Joio: Flute Trio, Mozart: Kegelstatt Trio Eroica Trio (Fantasy) EMI 07351 Bernstein: West Side Story, O'Connor 1 SPARK (Swing shift) Ars Produktion ARS38084 Numerous short works
Michael Brimer (b. 1933, South Africa/Australia) is the pianist of the Australian Trio, a highly regarded ensemble of long standing in his adopted country. His trio from 2001 has been described by my colleagues (review) as “earnest”, “satisfying”, “grave” and “unsettling”. It is written in an approachable but not undemanding style, and is worthy of a listen, though its only release is on a 4 disc anthology of his Trio’s recordings.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Australian Trio ABC 4765235 Collection
Yehezkel Braun (1922-2014, Israel) wrote six trios, all from the 1980s onwards, four of which have been recorded. It is unfortunate that three are included on a very obscure Israeli label, which is not readily available, as the samples I have heard are very enjoyable. The Gramola is easily obtained and very recommendable, though the companion pieces are unusual. Psalterion adds the ancient stringed instrument, the psanterin, and the other is a song cycle for mezzo and trio.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Amber Trio Beth Hatefutsoth CC005 (1-3) -- Gramola 98766 (4) Day and Day, Psalterion
In 2009 William Bolcom (1938-, USA) contributed a gentle and wry one movement trio - Haydn and Go Seek - as part of the "Homage to Haydn" project by the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt, which resulted in 18 new trios from composers around the world.
Performers Label Catalogue Number Coupling(s) Haydn Trio Eisenstadt Capriccio C7020 Collection
To finish, there are a few recordings which are either modernist or I haven't been able to hear even samples and don't know the composers.
Composer Work Performers Label Catalogue Number Kurt Bossler Trio Kastner, Bouchez, Kondo Querstand VKJK1119 Martin Boykan Trio 2 Berman, Stevens, Curry CRI 841 Nikolaus Brass Trio Becker, Wharton, Guggenberger Wergo WWE1CD20235 Martin Bresnick Trio Jupiter Trio Cantaloupe CA21041 Earle Brown Music for Violin, Cello & Piano Not known Mode 179 Raimondi, Soyer, Tudor New World 80650 Not known Wergo WER69312 Joanna Bruzdowicz Trio dei Due Mondi Strobel, Strahl, Szreder Pavane ADW7355 Nicholas Buc Trailer Music Benaud Trio Melba MR301139 Hans-Georg Burghardt Fantasy-Trio Malinconia Cornetto 20010
Mélanie Bonis, Suite Orientale
Sergei Bortkiewicz – Trio, op. 38 (1928)
Rutland Boughton - Celtic Prelude (1917) Piano Trio (1948)
Joseph Boulnois – Trio in B (1918)
Francisco Braga – Trio
Ignaz Brüll – Trio in E flat, op. 14