The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music CD review: Superstar trio of Ax, Perlman and Ma plays Mendelssohn

April 2, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

A reminder: It’s spring break. Because of staffing for the blog, your comments may take a bit longer to get posted. But don’t despair — they will get there.

Soloists generally love to do recitals and concertos, and many of them say they also love doing chamber music.

But sometimes the ego needed for a solo career  just doesn’t seem to mesh very well with the requirements of chamber music — a team sport, really.  Yet I admit that lately it seems to be getting better, perhaps because there has been more emphasis on chamber music in preparing soloists for professional careers. (With pianists especially, that is one of the legacies of the great pianist and teacher Rudolf Serkin, a devoted chamber player.)

The latest example that comes to mind is a new Sony release of the two piano trios by Felix Mendelssohn.

The players are pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma — all have been Madison favorites from the beginning of their careers and now pretty much superstars in the classical world. Ma and Ax go way back together, Perlman has played with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Curiously, the Mendelssohn release comes a year after the Mendelssohn Year in which his 200th birthday was celebrated. But all of the musicians say they admire Mendelssohn and find his music underplayed and underperformed — in part because of anti-Semitism.

Some defenders of Mendelssohn say it unfair to compare him to more adventurous contemporaries such as Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. I’m not sure about that. The Mendelssohn I most like — the “Reformation” and “Italian” symphonies, the trios, the string quartets, some of the “Songs Without Words” for solo piano — I really like. But he seemed to write a lot of very safe and conservative music that can strike one and unimaginative and even boring.

Still,  I generally like Mendelssohn most when he is done with an edge, with excitement.

Here, for example, is the opening of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio. No. 1 with the famous “Million Dollar Trio” of pianist Artur Rubinstein, violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky:

The piano trio is a curious form. It doesn’t have as much prestige or as high a profile as the string quartet, although it too was pioneered by Haydn, then picked up by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and others. And in the right hands — the now defunct Beaux Arts Trio probably set the modern gold standard for trio performances, although there are also the Florestan Trio and  Trio Fontenay — the piano-violin-cello trio can produce amazingly beautiful music.

And here is the beautiful slow movement of Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio with another famous high-profile piano trio of virtuoso soloists, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, violinist Izthak Perlman and cellist Lynn Harrell:

And earlier in the 20th century came the famous trio of pianist Alfred Cortot, violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals. Here they are in a first movement of Schubert Trio No., 1 in B-flat:

The new Mendelssohn release, which for two months has been among the Top 10 classical sellers at is a delight to hear. I myself would like a bit more of an upbeat tempo at the start of No. 1. But the tone is rich, the interplay is energetic and the dynamic balance is right. This is the current up-to-date version to have if you want to re-examine Mendelssohn — or just enjoy him — through his piano trios. The virtuosos know how to blend and play as one.

It makes you want to hear more from this trio. My vote goes to Schubert.

What do you think of the new Mendelssohn Trios CD?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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