Brahms: Piano Trios (complete)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Vanguard
WORKS: Piano Trios (complete)
PERFORMER: Altenberg Trio Vienna
CATALOGUE NO: 99211

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One measure of a ‘benchmark’ performance is that it puts the very idea of benchmarks out of our heads as we listen to it. If it focuses our attention almost exclusively on the music itself, then it’s doing its job (I say ‘almost’ because we always have spare attention for any transfiguring aspect of the playing itself). And if it sheds new light on works we know well, we can count ourselves lucky. This release does all of that. No performance, however great, can encompass all the possibilities of any piece. And the idea that one great performance can invalidate another, is simply inartistic. My pleasure here has no effect on my equal pleasure in Rubinstein/Heifetz/Feuermann on RCA, Katchen/Suk/Starker on Decca, the Beaux Arts Trio on Philips or the Trio Fontenay on Teldec.

But the great selling point here is the inclusion of both versions of the B major Trio: the seldom-played original from 1854 and the massively revised version of 1889. Instrumentally, the string players are outshone by the pianist, but the standard throughout is very high. Alert conversationalists, they are also exemplary listeners, picking up on each other’s subtlest inflections and ‘lighting’ the music with a continually evolving tonal palette from which many more famous ensembles could learn. They convey the complexity of Brahms’s multifaceted personality with great naturalness and virile rhythmic thrust. A minor drawback is the quality of the recording itself, and the cover design is probably the worst I’ve ever seen.

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Jeremy Siepmann