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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, D929 [51:16]
Adagio D897 “Notturno” [9:01]
Trio Alba (Livia Sellin, violin; Philipp Comploi, cello; Chengcheng Zhao, piano)
rec. 2017, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster
Reviewed in stereo & surround
Booklet notes in English & German
MDG AUDIOMAX 903 2013-6 SACD [60:17]

For those none the wiser, this is a Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG) release in its ‘Audiomax’ series, which encapsulates additional sonic attributes such as super-audio CD (SACD) encoding, and its proprietary ‘2+2+2 Recording’ scheme. It’s also easy to be none the wiser about the latter without doing some research and, frankly, guesswork beforehand. More on that later.

Without exaggeration, there is a glut of Schubert piano trio recordings presently available, with more entrants added to the pile just in the last year (review ~ review), not to mention my own encounter in 2016. MDG already have the excellent Vienna Piano Trio’s recordings in their catalogue. Is it that the A&R people are not doing their homework, or they are being overridden by gung-ho young performers who, perhaps oblivious to the market, think they have the Schubert silver bullet? Formed in 2008, the Trio Alba take their name, according to the liner notes, from the Italian word for sunrise or dawn, and the Swedish song “se solen sjunker”, that reputedly inspired Schubert to the second movement of his E-flat major piano trio. If indeed this work is the Trio Alba’s calling card, one might then concede that this recording is justified.

And it’s a very good one. This is a reading of obvious affection and grace; a thoughtful, graduated response to Schubert’s writing, bringing out its poetry which is tinged with melancholy, whimsy and, at times, drama. At a broad but purposeful pace, the Trio Alba unveil all in the kaleidoscopic first movement, their musical pulse centred on the deft pianism of Chengcheng Zhao. The Andante and Scherzando are likewise sure-footed and succinctly varied in mood and colour, revealing the composer’s capacity for charm while also suggesting a deeper underlying pathos. They finish the work with the original repeat-happy Allegro moderato, where Schubert (and apparently the Trio Alba) thought he was onto a good thing. At nearly twenty minutes long, the thematic material revolves as if on an endless loop (harmonic variations on the ‘tickling’ motif aside), and were it not as well played as it is here, I can imagine even the most ardent Schubertian’s patience wearing thin. A brave choice, perhaps, but the Trio Alba take it in their stride. To round out the disc, they bring all the same qualities to the D897 Notturno, this time focussed on the singing tone of Livia Sellin (violin) and Philipp Comploi (cello), who miss nothing of the piece’s meditative serenity.

As has often been said, ‘the best is the enemy of the good’, or in this case, the very good. Switching immediately from the Trio Alba to the benchmark Philips recording of the Beaux Arts Trio, I heard more oomph – dare I say testosterone? – in playing that is more angular and strongly pointed, maybe less nuanced, but big-boned and decidedly, if anachronistically, Brahmsian. There’s also a concision and trajectory to their interpretation – minimal repeats – that seems the polar opposite of the Trio Alba’s musings. At the end of the day, though, my preference is for the Florestan Trio on Hyperion, who bring everything to this work that might be imagined, balancing beauty, strength and sensitivity in nearly ideal recorded sound.

This is not the first MDG disc I’ve reviewed which touts ‘2+2+2 Recording’, but given that this release emphasises its audio credentials, it’s as well to look more closely at what’s in play. I understand that MDG normally provide some replay instructions with these discs, but I had none with my unsealed review copy. Some online hunting came up with "for 2+2+2 multichannel sound, please utilize your existing stereo speakers (in front right and left) and rear speakers (behind to the right and left). Then mount an additional speaker pair directly above the two front stereo speakers. The distance between each of the upper speakers and the stereo speaker below it should be half that between the two front stereo speakers. It is a good idea to position the upper speakers against the side walls. For three-dimensional sound, feed the signal of the centre speaker to the upper left speaker and the subwoofer signal to the upper right channel." Hmm ... so I’m expected to utilise or acquire another pair of full-range speakers, suspend them over my main stereo pair, and re-route the centre channel and subwoofer wiring to them? And maybe also re-jig the electronics for the subwoofer channel to remove any low-pass filtering? And just for the odd MDG?

A bridge too far, I decided, particularly as other technologies are apparently making more successful inroads into the immersive audio market, such as Auro-3D, which has been taken up by several labels, and also requires its own back-engineering if you’re not already equipped. I opted instead to compare the SACD stereo layer of the review disc with its surround layer, played as 4.0 (i.e. centre and subwoofer channels disabled, with no ‘height’ information). In stereo, the sound is clean and natural with a well-defined image, if seeming a little ‘pinched’ in frequency range, the piano lacking some body in its lower registers. Switching to surround introduces quite a deal of ambience from the rear which enhances realism but emphasises the emptiness of the recording venue; the piano image is fuller and more believable, while receding somewhat into the auditorium. Although I was foregoing the potential advantage of height information, I felt that the ambience introduced from the rear was quite sufficient, and any more would likely only accentuate the empty-hall effect. On this occasion, I found listening in stereo preferable, which should be good news for those who can only access the CD layer.

Where to place this disc provides something of a conundrum because ‘very good’, musically and sonically, does not cut it in such a crowded field. With relatively few SACD recordings of these works, however, perhaps the combination of performance and technology creates an attractive niche for this Trio Alba recording, especially for those who love Schubert and would like to experiment with MDG’s ‘2+2+2’ feature.

Des Hutchinson



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