Friday 27 March 2020

The Leipzig Circle: piano trios by Schumann, Gade & Mendelssohn from the Phoenix Piano Trio

The Leipzig Circle, piano trios by Robert Schumann, Niels Gade, Felix Mendelssohn; The Phoenix Piano Trio; STONE RECORDS
The Leipzig Circle, piano trios by Robert Schumann, Niels Gade, Felix Mendelssohn; The Phoenix Piano Trio; STONE RECORDS
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 March 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Three composers linked by friendship are explored in this disc of piano trios from the 1840s and 1850s

On 31 October 1847, the Danish composer Niels Gade visited Clara and Robert Schumann in Dresden, with the news that Felix Mendelssohn was seriously ill in Leipzig. Mendelssohn died a few days later after a series of strokes; Schumann and Gade were pall-bearers.

This disc from the Phoenix Piano Trio (Sholto Kynoch, piano, Jonathan Stone, violin, Christian Elliott, cello) celebrates the links between the three composers who all came to know each other in Leipzig in the 1830s and 1840s. The links between Schumann and Mendelssohn are well known, but the presence of the Danish composer Niels Gade is more intriguing, yet when Mendelssohn died it was Gade who was seen as his natural successor in charge of the Gewandhaus Orchester. The Prussian/Danish war of Schleswig-Holstein put paid to that and Gade, returning to Denmark, would live until 1890, becoming a somewhat old-fashioned figure in the Wagnerian flush of the later 19th century.

The Leipzig Circle: Schumann, Gade & Mendelssohn from Stone Records features the Phoenix Piano Trio in Robert Schumann's Piano Trio No 2 in F major, Opus 80, Niels Gade's Noveletten, Op. 29 and Feliz Mendelsssohn's Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Opus 66.

Phoenix Piano Trio (Sholto Kynoch, Jonathan Stone, Christian Elliott) at the 2016Oxford Lieder Festival - photo Tom Herring
Phoenix Piano Trio (Sholto Kynoch, Jonathan Stone, Christian Elliott) at the 2016 Oxford Lieder Festival
photo Tom Herring
When Schumann wrote a mad rush of chamber music in 1842, he never quite finished a piano trio, and when he returned to chamber music in 1847 he wrote two, the Piano Trio in D minor Op. 63, and the Piano Trio in F major Op. 80. The first rather troubled, the second (the one on this disc) rather friendlier. Perhaps one stimulus was that his wife had already written her piano trio, her magnum opus, in 1846.

The first movement of Schumann's Piano Trio No. 2, however friendly, is full of drama. Its extrovert opening is well captured by the players, with more thoughtful moments as the movement develops and some distinctly Bachian writing in the development. As with much of Schumann's piano chamber music, this is a piano-led piece but Sholto Kynoch never pushes himself forward overmuch and what impresses is the thoughtful give and take between the players. The atmospheric slow movement opens with a wonderful passage with the two strings weaving quiet lines over Kynoch's throbbing chords, the sympathy of the three creating real magic. The third movement is a sort of melancholy waltz with a strange syncopated rhythm which makes it lurch along, hoppity-kick. The players make it rather haunting and with hints of underlying unease. The finale is light textured and exhilarating, and rather recalls Schumann's piano writing. In fact, Schumann's piano based chamber music can often seem an extension of his piano solo writing, but here the trio almost make that a virtue and all three players contribute equally to the thoughtful atmosphere

It was Schumann who seems to have used the term Noveletten for his piano pieces Opus 21, and Gade adopted it for his 1853 pieces for piano trio which were written in Copenhagen. The work consists of five contrasting movements, which showcase Gade's melodic felicity and feeling for the chamber textures of the genre. The first lively, dramatic and scherzo-ish with attractively varied textures formed from three independent lines, the second movement graceful and fluid, with lovely intertwining lines and the spirit of Schumann not far away. The players make the third movement strongly characterised, and full of interesting rhythms, with a delicate middle section, then comes a lovely a song without words, again with a lovely fluidity to the scoring, and the finale full of Schuman-esque charm and impetuous drama.

Mendelssohn's second piano trio dates from 1845, just two years before his death and a period when he managed to cram in writing music such as the Violin Concerto, along with being administrator and conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchester in Leipzig. The piano writing in both Mendelssohn's trios is virtuoso (he had rewritten his first trio at composer Ferdinand Hiller's urging to make it more 'modern'). The result can sometimes turn the works into mini-piano concertos without a sympathetic performance such as the one it gets here.

The first movement is fast, but quiet and very atmospheric, with very mobile dynamics and some wonderful textures, moments of urgent excitement. A sense of the dynamism of the textures and the vivid dynamics is something which seems to characterise all the movements in the piece. Neither string player has a really fat sound, so they combine intensity with elegance, and Kynoch's piano is finely virtuoso without ever turning the work into a concerto. The slow movement starts out as a song without words, with the piano eventually being joined by the strings to develop the texture with some lovely singing lines. The scherzo is full of vivid scurrying, the fairies were very much back, with the three players giving us some brilliant playing, and excitement too. The Finale begins lyrically passionate, again with a very mobile texture with a lovely give and take between the players. And then the music dissolves into a chorale, then Mendelssohn combines the two into something lyrically passionate.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, Opus 80 (1847)
Niels Gade (1817-1890) - Noveletten, Opus 29 (1853)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor Opus 66 (1845)
Phoenix Piano Trio (Jonathan Stone, Christian Elliott, Sholto Kynoch)
Recorded 19-20 July and 29 August-1September 2016 at St John the Evangelist, Oxford
STONE RECORDS 5060192780949 1CD [72.55]

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