MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49; Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 - Yo-Yo Ma, cello/Itzhak Perlman, violin/Emanuel Ax, piano

02.10.10
Emanuel Ax
Audiophile Audition

By Gary Lemco

MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49; Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 - Yo-Yo Ma, cello/Itzhak Perlman, violin/Emanuel Ax, piano - Sony 88697 52192 2, 59:40 ****

The new “Million Dollar Trio” presents a lustrous Mendelssohn album as their first inspired offering as part of the composer’s bicentennial celebrations.

Two generations ago, the trio of Artur Rubinstein, Gregor Piatagorsky, and Jascha Heifetz became dubbed “The Million Dollar Trio,” and it seems that epithet now belongs to the three distinguished instrumentalists who realize Mendelssohn’s inspired chamber works on this delicious disc. In celebration of Mendelssohn’s 200th anniversary, these colleagues decided to record the two trios 28-29 March 2009 at The Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, under the guidance of producer Steven Epstein.

The facility of composition in the D Minor Trio (1839) consistently reveals a freshness of spirit and inventive charm that obviously appeal to these performers. As might be expected, the keyboard urges ever forward in sonata-allegro form, but never at the expense of the other two instruments, and Ma’s cello sings with noble authority in the seamless Molto allegro agitato first movement. Mendelssohn always conjures up “songs without words,” and the Andante of this fine chamber work proves the rule, Here, Perlman’s burnished violin tone sets the stage for a completely absorbed transparency of texture in all parts, with Ax’s conscientious piano part underlining the pathos of expression. While Mendelssohn’s Romanticism may appear staid, in the manner of an Austen novel heroine, the sincerity and simplicity of his melodic gifts belies any charge of emotional “effeminacy.”

Few can rival Mendelssohn’s “elfin” impulse, and here the rondo form trips in figures always acknowledging the primacy of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream fancies. The duo that often erupts between Perlman’s fleet violin and Ax’s diaphanous piano make for brilliant ensemble, with the Ma cello often shimmering in its own lights. The quasi-martial last movement Allegro assai appassionato keeps everyone busy, especially the active keyboard part that often calls for chromatic octaves and plastic chordal declamations. How much of the Heifetz ethos Perlman has integrated into himself can be assessed by comparing this version with that of the older master; but Ma, too, makes his sweetly songful contribution felt in the secondary theme whose sentiment remains direct without cloying. The inevitable transition to D Major marks a happy culmination for the ensemble, who bask in each of the composer’s lyrical outpourings, “from the heart to the heart,” to paraphrase Beethoven.

The Trio in C Minor (1845) casts a darker stormier shadow than the first, and its relatively gloomy hues appealed to that fellow melancholic, Johannes Brahms. In this opening movement, the duet of violin and cello exerts its hegemony, leaving the piano occasional runs and accompanying ostinato figures.  The string duet announces the lovely secondary theme in the major mode that becomes quite the rhapsody. The chromatic line and its brooding variants often concede some influence to Mendelssohn’s The First Walpurgis Night, Op. 60. The recap utilizes melodic kernels and brief rhythmic cells in felicitous harmony that move to a sighing ardent restatement of the full theme at the impassioned coda.

Ax alone announces the song without words that dominates the Andante espessivo second movement; but once Perlman and Ma arrive, they remain in close harmony. The rocking motif in the rhythm could easily have been derived from one of Mendelssohn’s choral motets. The cello writing reminds us of the equally facile Sonata in D Major, Op. 58 by this same composer. Perlman, too, provides exquisitely arched phrases for this wonderful moment of expression. The Scherzo, as Mendelssohn once offered, “is rather nasty to play,” as this well applies to the piano part. Brilliantly quick and quicksilver, the music flies at dizzying speeds, the violin buzzing and the keyboard aloft in various registers. What sufficed for eight players in the Op. 20 Octet now must be provided by three enthralled artists with symphonic aspirations. The last movement, Allegro appassionato, takes its cue, as in the Reformation Symphony, from a pre-fabricated chorale, here the sixteenth-century Genevan psalter “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit.”

The intensity of the writing, however, never betrays any sense of compromise, especially as the figures descend in leaps and sighs to a fine-honed sense of devotional closure.  A fine debut album--frankly, a tough act to follow.