MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio No. 1; Piano Trio No. 2 – Wu Han, piano /Philip Setzer, violin/ David Finckel, cello – Artist Led 11102, 57:03 *****:
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) would have loved these performances, for they combine the elegance and clarity of Mendelssohn’s ordered classical world with the joy, emotional warmth, and lyrical richness of his restrained Romantic sensibility. Many intellectual critics have taken Mendelssohn to task, especially early in the twentieth century, for writing music of surface emotion, especially for one who loved the German culture, so renowned for its profundity. But what he wrote was so perfectly structured, so logical and beautifully crafted, so melodically prolific, that it’s hard not to love his music. So it is with this recording: so beautifully rendered, so richly recorded, so immaculately performed that I was lost in the sensuous sound world that these musicians created.
What is the genesis of that sound world? Raised in a conservative, wealthy and culturally rich environment, the boy genius played piano in public at age 9 and wrote his masterful Octet at age 16. He went on to fame as a famous pianist, conductor, educator, and festival creator. But his compositions broke no new musical ground, as some of the Romantics of his time – Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin or Liszt – did. Mendelssohn’s musical themes and structures are rooted in Eighteenth Century Classicism. But, as Larry Todd’s excellent program notes comment, the spirit beneath the music is Romantic.  In his piano trios, there are no discordant notes to upset his audiences – just superbly crafted enjoyable music.
Right from the start of the First Piano Trio (1839), cellist David Finckel’s entrance – muted yet rich – announces that these performances will sing from a Romantic perspective. But, just as clear, is Wu Han’s piano introduction to the second movement – classically restrained, combining both lightness and depth. The tempo in these performances is never rushed, allowing Mendelssohn’s melodies to breathe, yet the brilliant quicksilver scherzo is dashed off with aplomb and verve. The Finale scintillates with joy and exuberance: you can almost see the performers smiling!
In the Second Piano Trio (1845), Mendelssohn’s Romantic style is extended, but the melodies often have a melancholic strain missing from the earlier Piano Trio. The second movement’s pensive qualities are beautifully contrasted by the violin and cello duet, gloriously played by Setzer and Finckel. An equally delicate and robust scherzo is precisely performed with ease, and the Lutheran chorale in the final movement is both jubilant and moving. Engineer Da-Hong Seetoo discreetly balances closeness with reverberation, creating a luminous sound world. These are superb performances that belong in every chamber music lover’s collection.
—Robert Moon