SCHUMANN: Complete Piano Trios, Quartet and Quintet – Trio Wanderer – Harmonia mundi

by | Jul 7, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SCHUMANN: Complete Piano Trios, Quartet and Quintet – Trio Wanderer/ Christophe Gaugué (viola), Catherine Montier (piano) – Harmonia mundi HMM 902344.46 (3 CDs, 2 hrs32:58) (2/20/21) [Distr. by PIAS] *****:

This fine set belongs to Trio Wanderer, but rather than “wander,” they demonstrate superior focus in the chamber music of Robert Schumann, whose output underwent a kind of sea change after 1845:  “I used to compose almost all my shorter pieces in the heat of inspiration,” Schumann wrote in a revealing diary entry. He adds, “Only from the year 1845 onwards, when I started to work out everything in my head, did a completely new manner of composing begin to develop.” I decided to address his 1847 Trio No. 1 in D Minor, which immediately bears the imprint of Schumann’s admiration for Beethoven. The first movement, marked in German Mit Energie und Leidenschaft, “with energy and passion,” using chromatic materials completely devoted to musical rather than literary impulses. Besides Schumann’s sense of counterpoint, he indulges in a new sense of timbre, having the violin and cello play on the bridge, while the piano sings in high register. Trio Wanderer captures the tumultuous ebb and flow of the progression with gripping tautness. The fine melody that emerges Schumann calls one of his “voices from afar.” 

Schumann marks his scherzo Lebhaft, doch nicht zu rasch, “Lively, but not too fast,” which turns out to be a vehement moment of canonic, imitative play. Even without any real theme, the music from the Wanderer Trio feels convinced of its galloping purpose. Vincent Coq, the ensemble pianist, has both hands full, as they separate to form a duo unto themselves. The geat of the Trio, the third movement Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung, “Slowly, with earnest feeling,” proceeds as an evolution of a violin sonata, with a plaintive violin in Jean-Marc Phillips Varjabedian. Cellist Raphael Pidoux joins the sonorous mix for a powerful lament that leaves the affect unresolved. Whatever Schumann’s retiring persona, Eusebius, expressed in movement three, his aggressive Floresta commands the exuberance of the last movement, Mit Feuer, in D Major. Spun organically from the opening motif, the parade assumes ever mounting vitality, concluding Schumann’s typical call for heroic or superhuman energy, nach und nach Schneller, “ever faster and faster” until all three instruments salute all overcoming of adversity.

The Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major (1849) yields to the loving power of Eusebius, and its suffusion of song elements from Schumann’s own oeuvre flow forth in spirited counterpoint. Schumann always had in mind Beethoven’s song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte, which no less informs his own Fantasie in C Major. Here, the Intermezzo from the Eichendorff cycle Liederkreis functions a motific impetus. The fact that Schumann’s wife toured with this, her favorite of the trios, testifies to private signals rampant in the score. Trio Wanderer provides the opening movement, Sehr lebhaft, with a jovial, relentless girth. The Eusebius character from Op. 6 appears in the course of the second movement in D-flat Major, Mit innigen Ausdruck, “With deep expression.” 

In B-flat Minor, the third movement, Im mässiger Bewegung, “In moderate tempo,” presents a rocking, syncopated intermezzo, with imitative figures in canon taken from other song cycles from the poetry of Heinrich Heine. At the coda, Schumann has his instruments modulate into the optimism of B-flat Major. Some hear in this movement – and again in the finale -echoes of that rare song-cycle Frauenliebe und Leben, Op. 42.  Violin and cello and piano and violin pair off in a whimsical, affectionate game of easy imitation, harmonized at the coda over a deep pedal. The last movement, Nicht zu rasch, absorbs several prior impulses in Trio Wanderer’s jaunty counterpoint, a tendency startling even to the composer: “I find it strange and remarkable,” he wrote, “that nearly every motif that forms in my mind lends itself to contrapuntal treatment.”

The 1851 Trio in G Minor bears a dedication to the Danish composer Niels Gade, and its premiere took place in Leipzig. Its dark, melancholy, waltz-like color at the opening likely reflects the composer’s unhappiness of having assumed a director’s post in Düsseldorf in the Rhineland, far from his native Saxony. The yearning melody at the outset, with its upward ninth, capitalizes on stressed dissonances. Do we hear influences of fluttering wings, a papillon (butterfly) or prophet bird? Schumann inserts a gigue in counterpoint that alludes to Clara Schumann’s own Trio in G Minor. There occur poignant thrusts of emotion as the figures recur and intertwine, alternating between pizzicato and arco passages, the repetitions a typical mode in late Schumann. 

The second movement, Ziemlich langsam, “fairly slow,” proceeds in the manner of a nocturne, perhaps indebted to Schubert. A haunted waltz, this music might recall the recent death of a master of the idiom, Frederic Chopin. The dialogue of the two strings of our Trio Wanderer makes  musical object lesson in ensemble. The middle section  is marked etwas bewegter, “somewhat more agitated,” but Trio Wanderer dispenses with the “somewhat.” Rasch, the third movement in C Minor sets us a rondo-scherzo based on the upward motion of the first movement motif. The potent chords from pianist Vincent Coq keep us entirely alert. The last movement bears a rustic drive, marked “powerfully and humorously,” that intimates the humoreske devices Schumann likes in his piano suites. Schumann utilizes martial elements that often carry a fairy tale flavor, and the G Minor episode presents strong, dotted rhythms he had used in a sad ballad Die beiden Grenadiere, Op. 49. No. 1 after Heine. The often contrary, paradoxical emotions of this late masterpiece have an exemplary performance by Trio Wanderer. 

Schumann’s prolific “chamber music year,” 1842, inspired his Piano Trio in A Minor, later to be published (1849) as his Fantasiestücke, Op. 88, a four-movement combination of Hausmusik for gifted amateurs in the fashion of character pieces. The four sections enjoy a predominantly gentle cast, close in spirit to Märchen, fairy-tale marches. After a lulling, melancholy Romance, the (attacca) Humoreske gives us a lively pastiche of martial moods, some stormily serious. A subtle ingenuity informs the Duett, in which the violin and cello engage in a melting vocalism over a delicately grave keyboard – recall this piece premiered literally on the day of Chopin’s death – that returns to the sadness of the Romance. Finale – In Marsch-Tempo clearly exploits Schumann’s love of inverting (the cello) motifs, here in contrapuntal colors. Double stopping in the strings allots to the sonority a rich, semi-orchestral vibrancy.

The two major chamber works of 1842, the Piano Quartet and the Piano Quintet, had the benefit of Felix Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, respectively, at the keyboard for their premieres. Rather than a mere shadow of the more imposing Quintet, the Op. 47 offers an adept light hand at composition, infiltrated by both song and counterpoint. The models here appear to be Mozart and Beethoven, with Schumann’s penchant for chorale writing to deepen the texture. Schumann exploits the chorale Wer nur lieben Gott läßt walten (“Whoever lets God prevail”) while at the same time bringing in motifs – for wife Clara – from the cycle Frauenliebe und Leben. 

The second movement Scherzo hustles in this performance by Trio Wanderer, a virtuoso romp in all parts, with  the help of Catherine Montier’s viola. The ardent third movement, Andante cantabile, presents us a song-form whose center seems inspired by passionately religious intensity. Listen in the coda for the pedal B-flat in Pidoux’s cello. Perhaps in an attempt to rival the contrapuntal facility of Mozart and Mendelssohn, Schumann write a Finale: Vivace that impishly combines a rondo form with fugue technique of a high order, given the Schumanns’ industrious study of Bach at the time. 

The 1842 Piano Quintet remains Schumann’s great announcement of his chamber music facility, and the work debuted  the combination of four strings and piano that the newly fashioned instrument, with its damper pedal, could sustain in timbre. Everything about the Trio Wanderer and invited guests’ performance proves exemplary, though in this case pianistic competition remains formidable in the annals of recordings, from such luminaries as Clifford Curzon, Rudolf Serkin, and Myra Hess, with selected ensembles like the Busch Quartet. The sonority of this stunning prototype in the piano quintet genre plays like a miniature piano concerto, with Beethoven in mind in the choice of keys, viz., E-flat Major and C Minor for the first two movements. 

The opening movement wavers between Florestan’s assertions and Eusebius’ introspections. Who can forget Universal Studios’ use of the grim In Modo d’una Marcia in various horror classics? But its miraculously comforting middle section never fails to transcend all but the  term “Romantic.” The power of the viola part hasn’t had such luxury since Boris Kroyt. The blistering Scherzo benefits from its two, contrasted Trio sections: the first a lovely canon for violin and viola, the second a pounding moto perpetuo. Schumann’s expert ability to consolidate thematic tissue reigns in the Allegro ma non troppo finale, in which a sonata-rondo incorporates canons and fugato, and then brings back – in the coda – the first movement for more contrapuntal gymnastics. That “vigor and freshness” Clara Schumann originally adjudged the work to possess have been perfectly projected into Trio Wanderer’s realization, and this set will suit any Schumann acolyte as essential listening.

–Gary Lemco




Schumann Trios Quartet Quintet by Trio Wanderer

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