MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49; Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 66 – Trio Alba – AudioMax multichannel SACD 903 1793-6 (2+2+2), 57:32 (Distr. by E1) [4/9/13] ****:
The two piano trios are among Mendelssohn’s finest and most popular chamber works. (Actually, there is a third, written when Mendelssohn was all of eleven, but that hardly counts.) We usually think of Mendelssohn and Schumann as the two composers who brought piano writing in the context of chamber music up to the present (at least the present circa 1840), so it’s surprising to learn that composer Ferdinand Hiller, Mendelssohn’s friend since boyhood, gave the latter a talking-to concerning the piano part of the First Piano Trio, and convinced him to revise it from start to finish. Hiller maintained that after he heard Mendelssohn’s first version, “I did have slight reservations. Certain piano figures based on broken chords seemed – to put it bluntly – a little old-fashioned to me. Having been in contact with Liszt and seen Chopin almost daily for several years in Paris, I had accustomed myself to the inventive new piano style.” Supposedly, the last movement underwent the biggest transformation, and the piano writing is gauranteed to keep the player on his or her toes. So a debt of thanks, then, to Hiller, who helped Mendelssohn perfect one of his most memorable works.
It seems that performers choose between one of two approaches to the first movement of this piece: either they launch into Mendelssohn’s Molto allegro agitato tempo immediately, or else they build to a fiery allegro eventually, with a slow and brooding accelerando. This is the approach chosen by the Alba Trio, and it works well, given the subtle gradient they maintain.
While the First Trio is more popular, its companion work written six years later (1845) is no less brilliant or skillfully written, and in fact I think the great finale of the Second Trio may elevate it above the First. Despite Mendelssohn’s tempo marking in the opening movement of the First, the Second Trio’s opener is even more agitato, edgier and more restless. The second movement brings repose and walks that fine line, as Mendelssohn often does, between true sentiment and sentimentality. Luckily, here the composer’s heart is in his music, as the movement fluidly passes from wistfulness to the melancholy of the minor-key central episode and then back again. The scherzos of both trios are typical Mendelssohn, but that of the Second Trio has more of the magic fairy dust of the composer’s early works such as the Octet and First String Quintet and, of course, the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The last movement is the capper, though, in more ways than one. It’s a rondo that pits a troubled minor-key A section against a meltingly lyrical B section that contains one of Mendelssohn’s finest melodies. Then Mendelssohn introduces a chorale melody which provides contrast to both sections in its air of spiritual groundedness. But its first two appearances are so understated that the contrast is hardly noticed—until Mendelssohn brings it back triumphantly at the end of the movement, confidently stated by piano and then the strings, as the piano hammers out the descending figure with which the A theme commences. Soon, however, the disquiet of this theme is a thing of memory, and the movement ends in C-major radiance.
The young Alba Trio (founded in 2008) enters upon a crowded field but holds its own against the competition. International in its makeup (violinist Livia Sellin is German, cellist Philipp Comploi is Austro-Italian, and pianist Chengcheng Zhao is Chinese), the Alba came together at the Graz University of Music—where the members worked on their master’s degrees—and has toured widely, including China and South America. The three are accomplished musicians individually and collectively; their sound is beautifully integrated, and their interpretations are sound and highly compelling. I can’t think of one interpretive choice of theirs that I would second-guess. And then there is MD&G’s surround sound recording, which places the trio in a highly believable space, with a palpable sense of depth and spaciousness, plus pinpoint placement of the instruments. In a word, it’s as lovely as the performances.