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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 (1839) [30:58]
Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66 (1845) [30:29]
Variations concertantes for cello and piano, Op 17 (1829) [9:58]
The Nash Ensemble: (Marianne Thorsen (violin); Paul Watkins (cello); Ian Brown (piano))
rec. 10-12 October 2005, Champs Hill, Pulborough, Sussex, England. DDD
ONYX 4011 [71:54]


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This is the second release on the independent designer record label Onyx from the Nash Ensemble, who are renowned as one of Britain’s finest chamber ensembles. Their first Onyx release was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Chamber Works, with soprano Sally Matthews, on Onyx 4005.

The London-based Nash Ensemble celebrated their fortieth anniversary in the 2004-05 season and have gained an impressive reputation for their consistently memorable performances. I especially enjoy their performances of the classical repertoire and have had the good fortune to see them perform the Mendelssohn Octet at the Wigmore Hall earlier this year.

In a six-year period between 1839 and 1845 Mendelssohn wrote two of the finest piano trios in the repertoire. These two can stand comparison with Beethoven’s finest: The Ghost’ and ‘Archduke’ written 1808-11; Schubert’s B flat and E flat from 1828; Schumann’s three composed 1847-51 and Brahms’s from 1854-86.

In 1832, when he was 23, Mendelssohn wrote to his sister Fanny, “I should like to compose a couple of good trios.” Not long after his marriage to Cécile Jeanrenaud, Mendelssohn did finally compose these two, the first in 1839 and the second in 1845.

The Piano Trio No. 1 was composed in the cities of Leipzig and Frankfurt. It was an immediate success and has proved to be one of his most perennially popular scores. Mendelssohn’s friend Ferdinand Hiller stated, “I was tremendously impressed with the fire and spirit, the flow and, in short, the mastery to be heard in every bar.” Cast in well balanced proportions the joyous and exuberant four movement work is exquisite and remains the most admired of the pair. It has an abundance of charm and appeal that has maintained its eminent status in the chamber music repertoire. The part for piano is more prominent than the more discreet involvement of the violin and cello. 

In the lengthy opening movement Molto allegro ed agitato the players are thoughtful and secure, although a touch tentative, especially in the early section. The second movement Andante, a delightful Song Without Words, is performed with remarkable sensitivity. The piano playing of Ian Brown is peerless in the Andante. Nimble and effervescent playing is on display in the demanding and sparkling third movement Scherzo and in the final Rondo marked Allegro assai appassionato the players provide a robust and confident performance.

The Piano Trio No. 2 was composed in 1845 in Frankfurt and dedicated to the composer Louis Spohr. At this time in Mendelssohns life his already delicate health was deteriorating and he was experiencing an overwhelming strain from dividing his time between his responsibilities in Berlin, Leipzig and London. In addition he was still grieving over the death of his father and his mothers fragile health was cause for concern. Mendelssohn was bedridden when he commenced the C minor score and it is no surprise to discover that the work, over extended stretches, sounds like a musical account of those extremely difficult days. In many ways the C minor is superior to its predecessor although the delights do not reveal themselves as easily. 

The playing from the Nash in the extended first movement is smooth and expressive, although the piano does tend to dominate the delicate balance. The Andante espressivo is given a meditative and solemn reading and in the energetic and intricate third movement Scherzo the trio are playful and energetic, remaining in total control. In the Finale, Allegro appassionato the players convey determination and adroitness, and bring the score to a thrilling conclusion.

Mendelssohn composed his Variations concertantes for cello and piano in 1829. The work was written for his brother Paul who must have been a very fine cellist if he was able to do justice to this attractive and lyrical score. Paul Watkins and Ian Brown provide an impressive performance that is alert, characterful and vivacious.   

These are top class performances blending a broad and vivid spectrum of colours. Especially appealing is the trio’s joy and playfulness in the Scherzo movements. These interpretations are not my first choice versions but they are right up there with the very best available. However, if this was my only version of the two Piano Trios I would not be disappointed. This Onyx release has a decent balance overall with reasonably clear sound, although there is some blaring in the forte passages. The booklet notes are a credit to the author Joanna Wyld.

The competition in the catalogues for the Mendelssohn Piano Trios has become fierce and I am able to suggest three alternative versions, none of which include the substantial filler, the Variations concertantes as offered on this Onyx release. My first choice recommendation is from the galácticos trio of Fischer, Gilad and Müller-Schott who give superb readings of these often underrated scores (PentaTone SACD PTC 5186 085). Their security of ensemble is breathtaking and one can detect a compelling sense of enjoyment. These 2006 Cologne performances surpass the best of the available versions. Smart contemporary presentation, interesting and detailed annotation, excellent sonics together with superb performances made this my joint Record of the Year for 2006.

One of the finest alternative recordings, featuring controlled energy and judicious selection of dynamic contrast, is from the Gould Piano Trio, recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk in 2000 on Naxos 8.555063. The outstanding Gould Trio is an improving ensemble that I have seen perform live several times. Since this Naxos recording they have engaged the services of cellist Alice Neary. In recital the Goulds attain a consistently high level of performance. A couple of months ago I attended one of their recitals at Kendal, Cumbria and once again the standard of music-making was exceptional.

In addition, I highly rate the award-winning readings from the Florestan Trio on Hyperion CDA67485. Recorded in the Henry Wood Hall, London in 2003, the Guardian reviewer was accurate with his description, “The Florestans keep textures light and transparent. Both performances are models of Mendelssohn interpretation.”

Extremely fine performances of these three Mendelssohn chamber scores from the Nash Ensemble on Onyx. 

Michael Cookson

The ONYX Catalogue




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