Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
Piano Trio No.2 in C minor, op.66

Media Review / Comparison


2014-09-10 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-13 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-07 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction

This posting is about the Piano Trio No.2 in C minor, op.66 by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847). I currently have 2 recordings of this composition:

This composition is new my collection — I added these two recordings in preparation for an upcoming concert (from the text below it will be clear why I chose those two CDs).


Background, About the Composition

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) wrote two piano trios. The first one, op.49, is in D minor. It’s a brilliant masterpiece from 1839, highly praised by Robert Schumann and many others. His second and final contribution to this genre, the Piano Trio No.2 in C minor, op.66 is less well-known than its predecessor — perhaps because op.49 received such high praise and attributes such as “Masterwork of present time”? The trio in C minor was completed in 1845. At that time, Mendelssohn had already turned more introverted, thoughtful, contemplative.

The Movements

Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor, op.66 has four movements:

I. Allegro energico e con fuoco, 4/4 (1/2 = 92)

Already with the first bar, the listener is thrown into a highly emotional, turbulent, restless atmosphere. The second theme is more cantabile, but still urging, with the exception of a short serene, lyrical middle section (based on the second theme). The movement remains dramatic to the end.

II. Andante espressivo, 9/8 (3/8 = 54)

The tone changes completely in the slow, second movement. Over 10 bars, the piano introduces a wonderful, warm, song-like theme. This is picked up by the strings, which for the rest of the movement play an intense, charming (but emotional) dialog, while the piano gradually gets more agitated.

III. Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto, 2/4 (1/2 = 88)

A very virtuosic, fast movement with a typical “Mendelssohnian”, restless semiquaver figurations. The movement is in G minor, except for the contrasting section in G major. The latter is based on the same material, so it would be incorrect to call it a Trio. There is also no separate tempo annotation for that central part, though some artists may choose a slightly contrasting tempo here. The annotated tempo (metronome number) is hardly playable on modern pianos. Mendelssohn mentioned to his sister Fanny that “playing it is a little disgusting” …

IV. Finale: Allegro appassionato, 6/8 (3/8 = 112)

The last movement starts in a moody atmosphere, but soon changes into a more dramatic and emotional attitude. It builds up turmoil — and twice after a climax, all of a sudden, Mendelssohn introduces the Lutheran chorale “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” (“Praise be to You, Jesus Christ”), starting pp the first time, then, close to the end, at full force (ff, con forza) and the movement ends in a wonderfully confident, even joyful spirit — very moving!


The Interpretations, Overview

In order to provide a rating overview (ratings 1 .. 5), as well as an idea about tempo relations both within an interpretation, as well as between the two recordings, I have prepared the table below. The color coding for the tempo (blue = slower, green = faster) refers to the average between the recordings:

Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No.2 in C minor, op.66 — comparison table

The Interpretations, Detail

I don’t remember when (if at all) I last listened to this music. As it is featured in an upcoming concert here in Zurich, I started looking around and found a live / concert recording of op.66, played by Yuja Wang, Leonidas Kavakos, and Gautier Capuçon at the Verbier Festival (presumably in 2013). Unfortunately, the contents of this video have since been blocked and are no longer available. I don’t really want to discuss that performance here: I try to avoid discussing YouTube videos, mainly for their typical sound limitations (this is not an amateur recording, but still…). Also, I’m supposed to hear Yuja Wang playing this composition in Zurich in a couple of days (I’ll follow up on this after the concert).

In order to get acquainted with the composition, I was looking for a good performance on CD. I found a second recording on YouTube (now removed as well, unfortunately), played by the Trio Wanderer (not a real video, just the score following the sound track). I didn’t yet have recordings with these artists, but in radio comparisons they tend to receive very high rankings. Also, I found their YouTube performance (from the CD below) quite good — so I decided to purchase that recording.

One problem I found with both these recordings is in the sound balance. The piano tends to cover / drown the string instruments, particularly the cello. Some of this may be caused by the YouTube sound limitations, but I suspected that a recording with period instruments (particularly a piano / fortepiano from Mendelssohn’s time) might offer more transparency and better balance — hence the addition of the second recording below.


Trio Wanderer

Mendelssohn: Piano Trios — Trio Wanderer; CD cover

Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Piano Trios 1 & 2

Trio Wanderer

harmonia mundi HMA 1951961 (CD, stereo); ℗ 2007 / © 2013
Booklet: 8 pp. f/e/d

Mendelssohn: Piano Trios — Trio Wanderer; CD, EAN-13 barcode
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On the Artists

The Trio Wanderer (Vincent Coq, piano; Jean-Marc Philips-Varjabédian, violin; Raphaël Pidoux, cello) was founded around 1987; between 1987 and 1991, the ensemble studied with notable artists and ensembles; it won its first prize in 1988 (several other awards following) and has since performed all over the world. The Trio Wanderer plays on modern instruments. This recording was made in September 2006. Information about the ensemble can also be found on Wikipedia.

The Performance

1. Allegro energico e con fuoco

Timing: 9’32”

An excellent interpretation! The artists really play as an ensemble, there are no coordination issues, they act as one single “body”. And yes, there is the inherent problem that with the modern concert grand the cello is sometimes in danger of being covered, even though the piano sound is clear. But that’s a generic problem with playing Mendelssohn chamber music with piano on modern instruments. My other, minor remark here is that in high, exposed passages, the vibrato in the violin is a bit nervous, maybe too strong. The tempo is exactly following the annotation.

2. Andante espressivo

Timing: 6’28”

Also here, the tempo is exactly as specified by Mendelssohn. Compared to the interpretation below, it feels fast at first. However, after all, it’s Andante, not primarily a slow movement. Apart from the nervous vibrato in the violin, the one minor reservation I have is that almost systematically, build-ups / crescendi appear to be associated with accelerando (I’d personally prefer the opposite). They do apply agogics, especially towards the end, where the music turns more intimate; I wish they had some more of this in the early parts of the movement — e.g., the minute, merely indicated fermatas that Yuja Wang applies to the climax in small phrases in the YouTube recording mentioned before.

3. Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto

Timing: 3’25”

A very good interpretation. But it’s also a proof that Mendelssohn’s metronome rating is hard, if not impossible to achieve on modern instruments (this here is 10% slow, even Yuja Wang in the YouTube recording above performs at 1/4 = 164 only). Yet, the artists here are occasionally “pushing” to keep the tempo up (as if they realized that they are about to fall behind). This takes away some of the playful Scherzo character of this movement. Sound balance: at times, the cello is fighting to be heard, the details of the piano part are often hard to read, especially the left hand.

4. Finale: Allegro appassionato

Timing: 6’42”

This is again at exactly the specified tempo, played very well, indeed. But this movement again reveals the limitations of the modern concert grand: the cello is often hardly discernible in Mendelssohn’s dense texture (as nice as it is to “take a plunge” in the full, warm sound of this recording!). Dynamics: the first entry of the chorale theme (see above) is too loud, not pp — and also here, the vibrato in the violin part is too obtrusive to my ears. But the interpretation is enthralling, has drive!

Summary

Overall Duration: 26’05”
Overall rating (see above for details): 4.5An excellent recording — I can definitely recommend this!


Voces Intimae

Mendelssohn/Schubert: Piano Trios — Voces Intimae; CD cover

Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Piano Trios 1 & 2; Schubert: Piano Trios opp.99 & 100

Voces Intimae

Pan Classics PC 10263 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1999/2002 / © 2012
Booklet: 15 pp. d/e/f

Mendelssohn/Schubert: Piano Trios — Voces Intimae; CD, EAN-13 barcode
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On the Artists

The ensemble Voces Intimae (Riccardo Cecchetti, piano; Luigi de Filippi, violin; Sandro Meo, cello) issued their first recording in 1999, on period instruments. Lately, they also appear to explore modern instruments, in parallel to the historic approach. The piano is a fortepiano by Joseph Worel (Vienna, ca. 1829), the violin is by Antonio Mariani (Pesaro, 1648), the cello by Mattia Albani (Bolzano, 1702).

Just to anticipate some of my comments below: I’m partially disappointed by this recording. In general, I really like the HIP approach with period instruments or proper replicas, but …

This touches on the question whether to use period instruments, or rather replicas of such instruments. A tricky question: the sound of every period instrument (fortepiano) is unique and cannot be reproduced through replicas, strictly speaking. On the other hand, I very much doubt that an original instrument from almost 200 years ago still sounds the way it did when it was built: wood is drying / aging, piano mechanics (also mostly from wood) deteriorate over time, even if they remained untouched for, say, 150 years.

In that sense, I trust a good replica much more than an original instrument from that time — mostly for the mechanics, but also for the interaction of the strings with the sound board, etc. In my opinion, such precious originals ought to be preserved as well as possible — their main purpose should be (to be preserved and) to serve as master for builders of replicas. No original lasts forever, after all! That said: I’m not sure to what degree to blame the instrument for my disappointments with the first two movements. I suspect it’s more a matter of how the instrument is played. This recording was made in 2012.

The Performance

1. Allegro energico e con fuoco

Timing: 9’26”

As mentioned: a disappointment, overall! First and foremost, the fortepiano: I don’t know whether to blame the pianist or rather piano mechanics that are falling apart, lost their precision, etc. Yes, the instrument does offer the nice sound of a fortepiano, rich in harmonics, singing — but here it is not more transparent than a modern concert grand. The articulation / action is imprecise, “washed out” — or is it the pianist who is constantly using a slight arpeggiando in his articulation?

I think the artist is at least contributing: some of the figurations are oddly stiff. The strings play mostly without vibrato; I definitely like vibrato-less playing for early romantic and older compositions. However, this puts higher demands on intonation purity, and there are several instances in this movement where the intonation could be better. Then, the dynamics are rather limited — pp and p are often too loud. Also, the artists use very little agogics — I’m missing those small “hold-ups” (minute, subtle ritardandi) ahead of accented note, which would build some “local tension”.

2. Andante espressivo

Timing: 6’37”

The tempo is slower than specified — and consequently, the piece lacks the flow of an Andante. Similar to the interpretation above, they tend to accelerate with crescendi, but this (along with their limited dynamic scope) is the least of my concerns: I don’t really like the piano part at all: the almost constant use of arpeggiando playing not only appears mechanical and predictable, but it also obscures the rhythmic structure of the music. This is aggravated with the (partial) use of the moderator: occasional use of arpeggiando should be OK, but I don’t think that should be combined with the moderator — at least not in this music. Not only the rhythm is obscured, but also the poetry in this music is lost (to me).

3. Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto

Timing: 3’18”

Now, this is excellent, I must say! Here, the period fortepiano can really play out its strength! Even on this instrument, the tempo is at the absolute limit of what is still doable: Mendelssohn obviously knew what the piano mechanics were able to achieve! But even at this tempo, the fast passages remain well articulated, clear and transparent, the bass register can play out its rumbling fun — and at the same time, the two string instruments remain audible, can maintain their roles in all this turmoil — I love it!

4. Finale: Allegro appassionato

Timing: 6’37”

A very good interpretation, again profiting from the advantages of using a fortepiano: no problem with the transparency and clarity overall. There is a certain tendency — especially on the violin — to use “swelling notes” (I’d prefer a more “percussive” articulation), and some sfp (strings) are on the fringe of exaggeration.

Summary

Overall Duration: 25’57”
Overall rating (see above for details): 3.8 — The last two movements (especially the Scherzo) mostly compensated for things I didn’t like with the first two.


Addendum

For completeness, I have checked the timings and the (approximate) metronome readings for the YouTube recording (no longer available) with Yuja Wang, Leonidas Kavakos, and Gautier Capuçon:

  1. Allegro energico e con fuoco: 1/4 = 176; duration: 9’48”
  2. Andante espressivo: 3/8 = 54; duration: 6’18”
  3. Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto: 1/4 = 164; duration: 3’20”
  4. Finale: Allegro appassionato: 3/8 = 108; duration: 7’15” (cut short by 2 – 3 seconds)

Overall Duration: 26’45” (excluding breaks, etc.)



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