CLARA SCHUMANN: Trio in G Minor Op. 17; ROBERT SCHUMANN: Trio in G Minor Op. 110; WOLFGANG RIHM: Fremde Szene III – Boulanger Trio – Ars Produktion Multichannel SACD ARS 38 048 66:23 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
Here’s a program of related but contrasted—in the case of Rihm, wildly contrasted—works for piano trio. The Clara Schumann and Robert Schumann trios make real sense as discmates, sharing the same key and of course many other elements that are natural to this famous husband-and-wife team.
As with her Piano Concerto in A Minor, Clara preceded her husband in writing for piano trio, her sole work in the medium appearing in 1846, the year before Robert’s First Trio. For models, she turned to the trios of the Mendelssohn siblings, Fanny and Felix, though in character it is unlike the trios of either. Whereas the works (one by Fanny, two by Felix) of the Mendelssohns are all pretty dramatic, Clara’s Trio is quietly ruminative. It is probably Clara’s most often-recorded piece. The finest movement, the melancholy first, really does grab the attention. The other movements don’t quite come up to this standard, and for me the work is too lacking in contrast, the quiet, sullen character of the opening pervading the other movements without relief, as lovely as the piece is in its way.
Robert’s Trio in G Minor, his third, does offer contrast throughout its four movements, from a restless opening and melancholy slow movement through to an impetuous scherzo and oddly rollicking finale. That oddness may account for its relative rarity on programs and on disc; it is the least popular of Robert’s trios. The notes to this recording refer to the “brittle denseness” and “disunity” of the trio, which isn’t all that evident in a good performance like the current one. But the notes seem right to me in calling attention to this trio as evidence of Robert’s experimentation. (However, the note writer’s assertion that the first movement is a series of “small, quickly-changing character pieces” rather than a standard sonata-allegro is hogwash. It’s actually a very lucid sonata-allegro, especially for Robert, who is sometimes felt to get into trouble working in traditional large-scale forms.) The experimentation comes in the last movement, with its two discursive, rambling themes that don’t seem to lend themselves at all to development. But Robert valiantly wrestles with them in this movement, showing his willingness to set new challenges for himself even if he doesn’t always fully succeed.
Wolfgang Rihm’s Fremde Szene is something of a classic of late-20th-century chamber music. Rihm explains that the fremde (“strange”) of the title refers to both those who listen and to “those inside it,” implying that he wants his performers to feel disoriented as well as they try to make musical sense of what the composer has given them. Rihm is also aware that the anachronistic form of the piano trio comes into violent conflict with the avantgarde sounds he asks the players to produce, and the result is, indeed, a strange experience. It’s as if we’re hearing familiar sounds but filtered through the corrupting webs of a dream, or madness. Those familiar sounds, by the way, are the sounds of Schumann and his piano trios, but Rihm creates “a portrait of an already-eroded Schumann, a Schumann on whom traces of [musical] decay can already be seen.” Unsettling, fascinating, difficult music, then, brought off very successfully by the Boulanger Trio.
The whole program, in fact, is a success. My benchmark performance of the Clara Schumann by the Dartington Trio on Hyperion is not surpassed, but it is certainly equaled here. The Boulanger very tellingly captures the parlando style that Clara’s music shares with her husband’s. And the Boulanger’s performance of Robert’s work is as fine as I’ve heard on disc, though if you want an all-Robert Schumann program, I recommend turning to either the Florestan Trio on Hyperion or the Vienna Brahms Trio on Naxos (which offers even more rarely heard Schumann and a budget price). On the other hand, if you want a stimulating, varied program captured in rich recorded surround sound, the Boulanger can be recommended with confidence.
– Lee Passarella