Trio Oreade
Mozart: Divertimento for String Trio in E♭ major, K.563
Mozart: String Trio Movement in G major, K.562e / Anh.66 (Fragment)

Media Received for Reviewing

2018-07-31 — Original posting



By sheer coincidence, I received the CD below a few weeks before attending a concert in Brugg, on 2019-07-21. The main work in that concert was also the key composition on this CD. So, I decided to review that disc now. This way, I could profit from synergies between the concert critique and this media review.

The CD

Here’s the CD—actually, a multi-channel 5.1 / stereo SACD / DSD:

Mozart: Divertimento in E♭ major, K.563; String Trio Movement in G major, K.562e

Trio Oreade: Yukiko Ishibashi, violin; Ursula Sarnthein, viola; Christine Hu, cello

Ars Produktion, ARS 38 278 Label-code (SACD / DSD, multichannel 5.1 / stereo); ℗ 2019; Booklet: 20 pp. de/en

Track Listing

  1. I. Allegro (Divertimento for String Trio in E♭ major, K.563) — 8’50”
  2. II. Adagio (K.563) — 10’34”
  3. III. Menuetto (K.563) — 5’33”
  4. IV. Andante (K.563) — 7’08”
  5. V. Menuetto (K.563) — 5’15”
  6. VI. Allegro (K.563) — 7’14”
  7. Allegro (String Trio Movement in G major, K.562e / Anh.66) — 7’35”

Overall Duration: 52’09” minutes (K.563: 44’34”).

The Trio Oreade

Trio Oreade (© Kaupo Kikkas)

Ensemble History

The artists on this CD are the Trio Oreade, a string trio formation consisting of

  • Yukiko Ishibashi, violin
  • Ursula Sarnthein, viola
  • Christine Hu, cello

The Trio Oreade entered the music scene with their first prize at the 2012 International String Trio Competition in Munich. This actually was in the year in which the ensemble was established. 2013 – 2015, the three musicians received training by Rainer Schmidt (*1964) of the Hagen Quartett, as part of a Graduate Course at the University of the Arts in Basel. Contacts with Heinrich Schiff (1951 – 2016), Thomas Grossenbacher (*1963), and Giovanni Antonini (*1965) further contributed to the ensemble’s experience. The trio debuted in Zurich in 2014, and 2016, they had their first performance at the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad.

After their debut CD with works by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828), Jean Françaix (1912 – 1997), and Bohuslav Martinů (1890 – 1959), the above the ensemble’s second CD recording.

Musicians, Instruments

Since fall 2017, all three musicians play on instruments by Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), a generous loan by the Stradivari Foundation Habisreutinger.

Yukiko Ishibashi, Violin

Yukiko Ishibashi grew up in Osaka, then studied at the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, with Koichiro Harada (*1941). In 1998, she moved to Europe, to continue her studies with Zakhar Bron (*1947) at the University of the Arts in Cologne. She won prizes at various competitions and also spent time studying in the US. Yukiko Ishibashi made her first concert appearance at age 18. She completed her musical education at the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts), with Györky Pauk (*1936). The soloist diploma completed her education in 2002.

Yukiko Ishibashi performs on the Stradivari violin “King George” from 1710.

Ursula Sarnthein, Viola

The violist Ursula Sarnthein grew up in Germany. From 1991 she studied playing the violin at the University of the Arts in Cologne, with Gorjan Košuta (*1947). 1996, she spent a year studying at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, with Elisabeth Zeuthen Schneider. In 1998, she completed her violin education, back in Cologne. 1998 – 2003, Ursula Sarnthein was second violinist at the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. Parallel to that, she studied viola at the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts) in Winterthur with Nora Chastain (*1961), finishing with the concert diploma in 2002. Besides her participation in the Trio Oreade, she now (since 2003) is playing the viola in the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich.

Ursula Sarnthein performs on the Stradivari viola “Gibson” from 1734.

Christine Hu, Cello

Born in Vienna to Taiwanese parents, Christine Hu began playing the cello at age 7. Her teachers in Vienna were Tobias Kühne (*1928) and Heinrich Schiff (1951 – 2016). She then changed to Basel, to study with Thomas Demenga (*1954), and Rainer Schmidt (*1964) of the Hagen Quartett for chamber music. Various master classes completed her cello education. She now is regularly playing with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, as well as with the Camerata Bern. Temporarily, she also was lead cellist at the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, and 2013/14 she was member of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. Starting in fall 2016, she is a member of the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra (Orchestra of the State Opera in Hamburg).

Christine Hu performs on the Stradivari cello “De Kermadec-Bläss” from 1698.

Mozart: Divertimento for String Trio in E♭ major, K.563

With his Divertimento for String Trio in E♭ major, K.563, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) created the work that crowns the genre, at least for the classic period. At the same time, this trio from 1788 is one of Mozart’s late masterworks across all genres. I have written about this composition in reports from a concert in Brugg, on 2019-03-02, and again in the recent review from a concert on 2019-07-21, also in Brugg. I’ll refrain from further duplication, just giving the list of the movements:

  1. Allegro (4/4)
  2. Adagio (3/4)
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto (3/4) – Trio (3/4)
  4. Andante (theme and 7 variations, 2/4)
  5. Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio I – Trio II (3/4)
  6. Allegro (6/8)

The Performance

I mentioned the recent concert performance of this Divertimento in Brugg, on 2019-07-21. It would be unfair to compare a CD recording with a live performance. However, I just want to point out one key difference, which may or may not be significant to the outcome. In the recent concert, the musicians’ arrangement was violin – viola – cello. This (visually, at least) positioned the viola as “mediator” between the violin and the cello. In this recording, however, the cello plays in the center. This offers better “spatial pitch balance”. At the same time (especially when heard through headphones), it makes it harder for the sounds of viola and violin to merge. One may argue that it helps keeping the two voices apart. However, with only three instruments, transparency should never be an issue anyway. For more on the sound characteristics see below.

I. Allegro

Here, and throughout the recording, one can feel how much, and how carefully the musicians in the Trio Oreade have considered issues of articulation and dynamics of every single phrase. Their tempo choices are such (based in the fastest notes, presumably) that the composer’s articulation / annotation remains clear and (relatively) clean. And the artists carefully follow the notation in all detail. Though, I did superficialities, e.g., in some of the groups of four ascending semiquavers (e.g., in bar 42 and equivalent). Strangely, in the second pass of the exposition, the last two semiquavers prior to the double bar seem to be (almost) entirely missing.

While there are many nice details in articulation and phrasing, I feel that there may have been too much focus on these aspects. True, one wants CD recordings to be as perfect and detailed as possible. However, with all the focus on detail, one should keep an eye on the momentum, and on the overall flow. The other movements will confirm this: I sometimes had the impression of a collection of details and nice phrases & motifs, but somehow, these didn’t seem to team up to a big, overall arch. The general rests—especially those preceding the double barline—are particularly critical to this: they shouldn’t make the movement fall apart into separate segments.

On the bright(er) side, I can’t complain about the intonation, and I do like how the Trio Oreade restricted the vibrato throughout the performance.

II. Adagio

Expectedly, the vibrato is more prominent here—though it still feels harmonious and non-obtrusive. Dynamics and articulation are careful and detailed in general. There are some exceptions / hiccups, though. The violin is often rather dominating, if not sometimes even loud. I particularly don’t understand why high peak notes (such as the high E♭ at the end of bar 16) receive an extra accent / highlight: don’t these high notes and passages already stand out by themselves? I prefer a more subtle approach.

In addition, I noted a certain tendency towards Nachdrücken, as well as a slight trend towards “belly notes”. Excessively cautious articulation may have contributed to this. It’s OK to let long notes evolve dynamically (as long as it’s not done with every instance), but I personally prefer a certain “percussiveness” in articulation. This particularly applies to the long violin notes in bars 30 – 33, later also bars 97 – 100: these are (obviously) meant to stand out, hence could (should?) start with a little accent (and then give way to the quavers in the accompaniment, rather than developing into a “belly”). This would also avoid blurring syncopes and contrasting rhythms.

Excess care also seemed to have watered down some punctuations in quaver pairs. Finally, with all the attention and not always convincing details in the shaping of phrases and motifs, I see some drops in tension, especially in general rests, where the musical flow isn’t really compelling.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio

Accurate in articulation and dynamics, i.e, the explicit f and p bars in the theme. However, I don’t understand why the p bar starts with a momentary hesitation, a little ritenuto? This hinders the musical flow, which again seems to be lacking also at a bigger scale. There is too much fragmentation, some lack of elegance and “dance feeling”. The tempo is OK, however, for a Menuetto, the music sounds rather firm, the dynamics too poignant, with some irregular swellings. Overall, this rather gives the impression of a Scherzo.

In the Trio, I fail to understand the excessive rubato, in particular the extreme accelerando in the descending quaver scale. Even more than in the Menuetto, the focus remains on the details in phrases & motifs, there is no continuity, no overall flow—rather a caricature of a movement?
★★½ / ★★

IV. Andante (Theme and 7 Variations)

I noted the perfect coordination between violin and viola in the theme: almost like a single instrument! Also, the segments where the two voices play octave parallels, the intonation (rather challenging with little or no vibrato!) is excellent.

In the first variation, I found the “belly dynamics” on long violin notes to be too poignant. Also, the violin often sounds too dominating, particularly on the E-string. On the other hand, where viola or cello have the melody voice, the other instruments do give way to the cantilena, up to the minore variation. In the latter, I enjoyed the poignant, vibrato-less, clean dissonances. Sadly, the last (maggiore) variation is quite disappointing: the articulation in the demisemiquavers is rather coarse (almost staccato), and the slow “cantus firmus” (the theme & melody, after all!) in the middle voice is drowning between the demisemiquavers on the violin and the semiquaver staccato in the cello.

V. Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio I – Trio II

The Menuetto again feels like a Scherzo. Here, though, the Allegretto annotation might justify this.

Mozart may indeed have conceived the first Trio as a caricature, a strong contrast, at least: it feels like a somewhat clumsy peasant dance. The annotation is p, though, which to me implies a certain subtlety. Only the second part has a set of mfp “accent” markings, which strangely appear less accentuated than other notes in this movement.

The subsequent, second instance of the Menuetto follows Mozart’s dynamics (the repeats now are p)—however, why this acceleration towards the end of both instances of the second Menuetto part?

The Trio II starts with the appropriate (somewhat heavy) dance swaying—though, in the second part, extreme rubato once more disrupts the flow, makes the movement feel like a caricature.

VI. Allegro

The first Rondo theme is too slow! That’s a harmless, almost comfy Allegretto at best, if not a fluent Andante. The rhythmic coordination in the second theme is excellent though, and the semiquaver chain in the first violin feels vivid, lively (though I suspect that Mozart intended more of a virtuosic challenge!). The moderate tempo not only makes the movement sound rather harmless, it also exposes the occasional Nachdrücken. And it contributes to making the movement fall apart / lack coherence. Furthermore, with every recurring instance, it turns the Rondo theme into an earworm. Shouldn’t this rather be a witty, but enthralling and virtuosic finale?

Let me summarize my listening experience in the Divertimento. I had the impression that the ensemble spent a lot of care and effort on working out the dynamics and the articulation / layout of every single phrase, but in the end failed to merge that into a compelling, harmonious overall musical flow. It felt like a “bottom-up approach” that didn’t quite reach completion. I’m tempted to state that it might have been better first to decide on the tempo, the overall musical flow, character and momentum, and then to work down to the details in the articulation and dynamics of phrases and motifs. That’s just my personal impression, though…

Overall Rating: ★★★

Mozart: String Trio Movement, K.562e / Anh.66 (Fragment)

Besides the above Divertimento, K.563, we only have one small fragment of another string trio by Mozart. Allegedly in the year in which he wrote the Divertimento, he also started working on a String Trio in G major (now listed as K.562e / Anhang 66). Sadly, the composition remained a fragment, consisting of just the exposition of the first movement, plus just 9 bars of a development part. The musicologist Franz Beyer (1922 – 2018) completed that fragment to a full movement, using the existing material.

The Performance

Excellent, detailed and accurate in articulation and coordination—no complaints at all about the Trio Oreate in terms of technical mastership. My main quibbles are again excesses in rubato (why this hesitation / slow start with the quavers following the initial fanfare?), and some slight dynamic exaggerations (e.g., some swellings). Still, I regard this movement among the best on this CD.

Franz Beyer’s completion is very good—almost as good as genuine Mozart! Maybe not quite as compelling in the musical flow, but at least exclusively using material from the exposition, with the appropriate mixing of motifs, modulations / harmonic excursions. The recap section follows as natural continuation after a short cadenza in the violin, and the movement ends in a witty, short Coda. Beyer’s completed version is very much worth playing—thanks for including this in the recording!

Rating: ★★★

Recording / Sound, etc.

The recording is very clear, the reverberation inconspicuous (just fine). Still, I have mixed feelings towards the recording technique, i.e., the work of the sound engineer.

One key point is that the microphone placement must have been very close to the instruments. This alters the perspective from showing the projected sound (as heard at an “ideal concert distance” of, say, 5 – 10 meters) to the position of a listener amidst the ensemble. This can make a recording very special, offering views that are usually out of reach for the ordinary listener.

However, the close-up view also implies a shift from the projected sound towards the more “technical” sound that also the musicians hear and work with. In this case, the sound is not as smooth and clear as in the distance, but there is the audible component of the bow hair & rosin interacting with the string(s). In general (having once played the violin myself, decades ago), I personally really like recordings that reveal the craftsmanship aspect of a performance. One example is how the strings respond to the bow, i.e., the little scratching noises. Also, how the fingers are dropped onto the string / the fingerboard. Or the plucking noise (the short grinding noise of skin and the finger nail pulling and releasing the string) in pizzicato.

Disadvantages of a Close-Up Recording

Here, however, I feel that the close-up perspective is taken too far. Interestingly, one does not hear left-hand finger noises, and the amount of string “articulation noise” (the momentary scratching at the beginning of a tone / bow stroke) is just fine (likely a consequence of very careful / soft articulation). However the tone itself (on all instruments) has a certain matte, rough, occasionally slightly grinding quality (especially through headphones). I usually would call this “tone with a character” (and indeed, it does show the “close-up colors” of the instruments). Here, however, this (the “character”) prevails to a degree that makes it impossible to sense the radiance, the brilliance and projection of any of the instruments.

Furthermore, the close-up view has a “microscope effect”, in that it reveals more details (irregularities, in particular) about articulation and dynamics than I really want to hear. This might work out well in the case of a top-level, perfect performance—but otherwise… But yes, the recording shows the (close-up) characteristics of the three Stradivari instruments, their well-balanced qualities across the tonal range. It also shows how well the instruments (naturally?) match in their sound (excluding projection and radiance, though)..


As one might guess from the above comments, I hesitate recommending this recording / CD. My judgement is not just “bad luck because I heard the Divertimento twice in more convincing concert performances this year”. Note that my criticism does not aim at the technical prowess of the Trio Oreade, but primarily their interpretative approach (rubato, articulation, occasionally also tempo) on this Mozart CD. And the recording setup wasn’t helpful either, I think.


The media for this review were sent to me by Krystian Nowakowski, NO-TE e.U.

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