Mendelssohn: The Piano Trios – Sitkovetsky Trio

Mendelssohn's Piano Trios Nos 1 & 2 played by the Sitkovetsky Trio and the Trio Dali.

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Mendelssohn: The Piano Trios
WORKS: Piano Trios Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: Sitkovetsky Trio
CATALOGUE NO: BIS 2109 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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We all know you can’t – or shouldn’t – judge a book or in this case CD by its cover, but the sleeves of two new recordings of Mendelssohn’s piano trios just so happen to give a fair flavour of what you’ll get from each. Members of the Trio Dali feature in a stylish black-and-white photo that reveals many subtleties and shades of grey. The Trio Sitkovetsky, on the other hand, has chosen one of the multi-talented Mendelssohn’s own watercolours of the Amalfi Coast. And their playing correspondingly displays colour, liveliness and a strong feel for Mendelssohn’s voice. Both approaches work but the Sitkovetsky’s is the one I would want to go back to again – it has all the ‘fire and vivacity, the flow, in a word the mastery’ that Ferdinand Hiller described after hearing the premiere of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Trio in D minor in 1840.

It’s a trio with a particularly taxing piano part: the composer himself said it was designed to let the pianist show off. Wu Qian dazzles but never blinds and her seemingly-easy virtuosity is well matched by violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich. There’s always the sense of three individuals listening to one another to create a satisfying whole, right from the expansive phrasing they employ in the opening of the D minor trio. That sense of line also makes itself felt in the sweetly sung Andante con moto tranquillo, paving the way for a nimbly performed scherzo. The C minor Second Trio opens their disc, with the dark turbulence they bring to the first movement pointing to Brahms, although the scurrying elfin scherzo is pure Mendelssohn – and it’s deftly done here.

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The Trio Dali have programmed the two trios in numerical order, pairing each with a transcription (author unamed) of a Bach chorale – one for violin and piano, one for cello and piano. It’s a thoughtful nod to Mendelssohn’s reverence of Bach but perhaps works on better on paper than in practice, as these short chorales end up feeling inconsequential in comparison to the weighty trios. Recorded up close, the layers and nuances of the Dali’s gentle sound are on display, and their carefully judged individual voices sing out. A particularly beautiful sense of tranquillity infuses the D minor’s Andante but both finales fall a little flat. Rebecca Franks