Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 9 August 2010

Mendelssohn Piano Trios

Piano Trio no.1 in D minor Op.49 [28:12]
Piano Trio no.2 in C minor Op.66 [30:07]
Mendelssohn Piano Trio
Recorded at the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, Silver Spring, Maryland 12-14 June 2007 Stereo DDD
Centaur CRC 2925 [58:19]

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Good solid performances of the Mendelssohn trios these. Technically, there is little to fault, but some may find the approach staid. Melody is the composer's overriding concern throughout both works, and the Mendelssohn Piano Trio seem content to let their namesake composer's melodic lines speak for themselves. There is rarely any feeling of the performers letting go and allowing the melodies to take flight. Structure, proportion, ensemble and balance are all precisely controlled, and the interpretation is certainly true to the texts of the scores. Whether it is true to the spirit of the music is a matter of opinion.

The Mendelssohn Piano Trio had been performing together for ten years when this recording was made in 2007, and the internal dynamics of the group, at least as presented here are fascinating. Fiona Thompson on the cello provides the solid foundation for the ensemble. She is better suited to the bass lines than the cello solos, which are lacking in character. But her playing in the tuttis is ideal, and on the occasions when Mendelssohn writes lower dynamics for the cello than the other instruments, her sound always comes through.

Peter Sirotin performs almost throughout as if he were a soloist. His tone is focussed without being narrow. Strangely, his upper register is rounder and more melodic than the mid to lower range.

Ya-Ting Chang often gives the impression that she is leading from the piano. Her approach too is soloistic, although not particularly indulgent in terms of rubato or dynamic extremes. The ensemble between the violin and cello is good, but there are a couple of places where the piano is audibly ahead of both. The andante second movement of the First Trio is a case in point. The reading is fast, at 6:11 almost a minute shorter than the near-benchmark Smetana Trio recording from a few months ago (Supraphon SU 4008-2). So why the haste? The piano's occasional anticipations suggest the brisk tempo was her idea, or at least that she has been tasked to maintain it. 

This faster-than-andante andante demonstrates the best and the worst of the recording overall. On the plus side, Mendelssohn's expansive melody can be appreciated in its entirety without the undue distractions of interpretive detail. And the main theme comes across as very noble indeed, slightly solemn, but entirely unaffected. On the other hand, it could easily be argued that the music deserves more indulgence than this. There is something almost mechanical - ok let's say 'Classical' – about the brisk, rubatoless piano melodies and dynamically constrained strings. 

Better that than too much indulgence I suppose, and as I say, the strait-laced approach makes the recording an excellent document of the works it presents. Despite their name, the quality of the performances suggests that the ensemble are far more familiar with the First Trio than the Second. There are a number of ensemble problems in the outer movements of the Second Trio, not serious enough to compromise the quality of the overall recording, but all the more conspicuous for the precision of the ensemble in the First Trio.

If you are looking for no-nonsense Mendelssohn, this may be the recording for you. The technical problems I've mentioned aren't worth dwelling on as they are generally slight. The lack of interpretive indulgence is more of an issue. The two works, and the First Trio in particular, have star-studded discographies, but many of the famous names who have recorded them have been soloists doing some chamber music on the side. Not so here; the Mendelssohn Piano Trio are genuine chamber musicians. This is core repertoire for them, and that is exactly how they play it – no unnecessary interpretive distractions, just the goods.

Gavin Dixon

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