Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Mozart and Mendelssohn: Beloved of the Gods

MOZART: Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano in E flat major, K498, 'Kegelstatt' (1786) [19:17]
Papamina Suite - music from Mozart's The Magic Flute arranged by Stephen Emmerson (2003) [16:25]
MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op. 13, 'Ist es wahr?' (1827) [32:20]
Dean Emerson Dean Trio (Mozart)
Tinalley String Quartet (Mendelssohn)
Recorded at the Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, Melbourne 7-8 June 2008 (Mozart) and 18-19 August 2007 (Mendelssohn) DDD DSD
MELBA RECORDINGS MR 301121 [68:08]

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The Mozart Clarinet Trio, an arrangement of themes from the Magic Flute and a Mendelssohn string quartet, it is an unusual and eclectic programme for a CD. In fact, the Magic Flute arrangement is for the same forces as the trio (clarinet, viola and piano) and Mendelssohn’s Op. 13 quartet is an example of his more Mozartian side, so it all just about works. However, it is a disc of two halves, and the maturity of the Dean Emerson Dean Trio in the first two works is in stark contrast to the youthful exuberance of the Tinalley String Quartet in the Mendelssohn.

The Dean Emerson Dean Trio is made up of viola player (and respected composer) Brett Dean, his brother Paul playing clarinet and Stephen Emmerson at the piano. Their reading of the ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio is muscular and assured. Dialogue between clarinet and viola makes up much of the work, and the two brothers achieve an impressive stylistic continuity, complimenting each other elegantly with their respective timbres. Paul Dean has a satisfyingly woody clarinet tone and suppleness in the quieter dynamics that is ideal for this chamber music environment. Brett Dean is not a shy or retiring sort of viola player, and the focus of his tone prevents his playing being subsumed by the potentially more dominant clarinet and piano. His lower register is particularly satisfying, drawing cello-link sonorities from the lower strings.

If I have one complaint about the Mozart Trio, it is a certain lack of commitment. The players cope well with the technical challenges, but seem unwilling to inject any drama into the music. It is not the most passionate of Mozart’s chamber works, but it really requires more emotional engagement than this to properly shine. The Pamina Suite, an arrangement of Pamino and Pamina’s music from the Magic Flute by the group’s pianist, is also a suspiciously comfortable ride. Again, the technical accomplishment of the performance is undeniable, and the interplay of tone colours in the arrangement demonstrates a keen ear. But the purpose of the arrangement is never clear, nor its role in this programme, a feeling that seems to be shared by the performers.

The Tinalley String Quartet are a young Australian ensemble who clearly have the technical skills and tight sense of ensemble required for Mendelssohn’s 2nd String Quartet. But, as with the preceding Mozart, there is an anonymity about their playing, which makes it very difficult for the listener to get involved. This is not helped by the tempi, which are generally on the slow side. They cope well with Mendelssohn’s rapid transitions of tempo, texture and key, but have little in reserve for the more immediate changes, the con fuoco in the first movement for example, or the con moto in the third. Their steady reading is at its most effective in the slower passages. The second movement, despite being marked Adagio non lento, benefits from the measured, deliberate pacing. The end of the work reprises the Adagio opening of the first movement, and again, the unaffected simplicity of the quartet’s tone and their cautious tempo provides a stately frame for the work, a touch of classical elegance to counter any suspicions of triviality in Mendelssohn’s music.

Recent advertising features for recordings on the Melba label have carried the tagline ‘The perfect gift, superb sound and superior presentation’. Their claims to superior presentation are well founded, with both the design of the box and the information in the liner notes up to the company’s usual high standards. I have to say, though, that the sound recording does not match that of other recent Melba releases, the quartet is very top-heavy, with the cello often struggling to be heard. The balance in the clarinet trio is better, but there are a number of instances of peak distortion, around two minutes into the first movement, for example, and on the last chord of the second. Not a fatal flaw, but a surprise considering the high standards of sound production that the company is justly proud of. The claim that the CD would make a perfect gift seems reasonable. The performances are cautious enough not to offend and the box looks spectacular. Put it in your granny’s stocking it should keep her entertained until Boxing Day.

Gavin Dixon 2010

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