Von HERZOGENBERG: Piano Trios – Vienna Piano Trio – SACD

Von HERZOGENBERG: Piano Trios op. 24 & 36 – Vienna Piano Trio – SACD MDG 942 2017-6, 65: 38, (5/17/17) ****;

An exemplar of the the Brahmsian chamber school in two large-scale, absorbing piano trios.

(David McCarroll; violin; Matthias Gredler; cello/ Stefan Mendl; piano)

The portrait of Heinrich von Herzogenberg included in the notes of this new MDG release merit careful study. We see an elegant figure representative of German High Culture at its artistic acme with a fine wool jacket, silk cravat, and the inevitable pince nez. The beard, not quite as assertive as that of Herr Brahms, is nevertheless impressive, with incipient mustachios adding a dapper accent. The eyes have to be taken in turn. The left stares out into space—or the future— with an astonished fixation, while the right drowsily drifts to the side as if in pleasant contemplation of a familiar scene. On the picture, we notice a stamp from a Berlin photo agency, while the location is the composer’s home, Leipzig, cities that might well stand for the new and the old in German Musical Culture.

We learn in the outstanding notes that Herzogenberg was a composer at the crossroads.  Lines had long been drawn-up between the antagonistic camps of Wagner/Liszt and Brahms. This composer ended up siding with the conservative camp, but not before flirting with the Zukunftmusik. His early works, Columbus op. 11 and Odysseus op.16, are tributes to the artistic and literary sensibilities of the avant garde. The trios on offer here are, in contrast, imbued with Brahmsian values and step in line with the Classical chamber music tradition of the piano trio, the tenets of which were established the masters, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Herzogenberg’s loyalty to his master was expressed thus:

 “He has helped me, by his mere existence, in my development; the admiration for him inside, of his artistic and human power, has strengthened my weak soul and driven it on without ceasing to the point where I stand.”

For our purposes, that point is two trios written six years apart in 1876 and 1882. Listeners will be tempted to compare them to Brahms’ three trios from about the same period, which is an approach presumably endorsed by the composer himself. By those standards, he does very well. The broad theme of the Allegro suggests nuanced romantic lyricism with a genial but learned colloquy prevailing between the musicians. At exactly ten minutes, this movement is a journey across the 19th century Romantic musical language as filtered through a restrained Classical technique. As good as the first movement is, we are even more impressed by the Andante. Here the composer is less overtly Brahmsian. I must confess that in the Master’s big chamber pieces a stiff self-consciousness sometimes marks the slow lyrical passages, an excessive concern for dignity. The opposite pole is Dvorak. Herzogenberg doesn’t quite let himself go like his Bohemian contemporary, but he is closer in spirit to the Dvorak in both his effusions and simplicity.

Thus, we can say that these relatively unknown pieces can be used to trick your friend twice. “Listen to this recently discovered discarded revision of the Brahms opus 8 (He tinkered with this work throughout his life),” you might say. Or in the slow movements. “Everyone knows the Dumky, but can you name this Dvorak trio?”

There is little to choose from between the two works. They are both long with the inescapable longueurs and moments of marking time, especially in the boisterous sections which Herzogenberg misses just a modicum of Brahms rhythmic drive, relying on hectic energy which overwhelms his occasionally frail melodic subject. If a single movement stands out for measuring up to the highest standards of this repertoire, it is the Allegro of the second trio. The cello of Matthias Gredler is flattered throughout; one feels for an instant that we are not in the realm of the trio but closer to Brahms exquisite sonatas for cello and piano. There is some hard-won virtuosity in the building declarations. It is personal expression measured out with exacting craft. In its best moments, it stands with Schumann, as well as with his professed Master.

As for  the playing of Vienna Piano Trio, I have nought but unstinting praise. There is the usual shine on the string sound, which the engineers at MDG capture as well as any in the business. A recent MDG recording of Bach’s Partita no. 2 played by Gertrud Schilde (MDG  903 2004-6 ****½ ), which investigates the sources of Bach’s Chaconne release, sets perhaps their all-time standard. This SACD comes very close to that in terms of ideal sound staging.

I suggest leaving the Dvorak and Brahms this month and introducing yourself to a worthy master of 19th century chamber music.

—Fritz Balwit

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