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The Leipzig Circle

Chamber music by Schumann, Gade & Mendelssohn

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Related Artists: The Phoenix Piano Trio

Catalogue Number: 5060192780949


An intelligently programmed disc, with two familiar trios framing the less well-known Novelletten by Gade. The Phoenix Trio are in splendidly vibrant form throughout, but especially in the Mendelssohn **** (BBC Music)

Robert Schumann’s F-major Piano Trio (Opus 80) opens this Leipzig-centric recording with a burst of energy that takes the listener with it, and also establishes the Phoenix Piano Trio (Jonathan Stone, violin, Christian Elliott, cello, and Sholto Kynoch) as an estimable ensemble, driving Schumann’s Sehr lebhaft with dynamism but also light and shade and knowing just when to ease off the gas a little. This opening movement is also indicative of David Rowell’s perfectly engineered sound; intimate yet airy. Schumann’s remaining three movements are also brought off with style and discernment, revealing the composer’s confidences, mood-swings and likeable quirks. If the work as a whole isn’t Schumann at his supreme best (he might have found it tricky to follow the standout opening movement), then there can be no doubt as to the masterpiece status of Felix Mendelssohn’s C-minor Piano Trio (Opus 66). Following a surreptitious yet ardent Allegro energico e con fuoco (exactly that from the Phoenix members) is a blissful Andante espressivo, then a feather-light mercurial Scherzo (trademark Mendelssohn), the musicians deftly matching the prescribed Molto allegro quasi presto. The second-subject basis of the final movement, Allegro appassionato, is one of those Heaven-sent melodies – noble-heroic – that you listen to in wonder (where did Mendelssohn find that from?), nowhere more so than on its ultimate utterance, most-tenderly addressed by Kynoch. In case you are wondering how Copenhagen-born Niels Gade (1817-1890) fits into the Leipzig scene, well Mendelssohn conducted his music, and Gade moved there in 1843 to assist him and also assist him. A couple of years later Gade substituted for an ailing composer to conduct the premiere of Mendelssohn’s E-minor Violin Concerto (Ferdinand David as soloist) and succeeded him as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, a short-lived appointment given war broke out between Prussia and Denmark and Gade returned to Copenhagen. His five Novelletten are charming, leaning more to Schumann (whom Gade also knew on friendly terms) than Mendelssohn. (Colin’s Column)

It’s interesting to see what can be achieved with a little bit of imaginative programming. It’s not too much of a leap to pair Niels Gade with the two composers with whom he was on close terms in Leipzig in the 1840s, Mendelssohn and Schumann – and if pressed, I’d probably have described his music as most closely resembling Mendelssohn’s. Yet if this attractive programme from the Phoenix Piano Trio demonstrates anything, it’s Gade’s temperamental kinship to Schumann: that same fondness for short forms, and that balancing act between tender inwardness and headlong, euphoric verve. The Phoenix Piano Trio capture all those qualities with unaffected freshness and charm, both in Gade’s Novelletten and in Schumann’s relatively more familiar F major Piano Trio. The opening of each of these two works, in fact, is practically supercharged … in the many passages of lightness, lyricism and delicacy, these performances are thoroughly engaging: the playful lilt of Schumann’s third-movement intermezzo; Sholto Kynoch’s limpid piano-playing in Gade’s Larghetto; and the unforced, plain-spoken tone of the two string players. It’s real chamber music, in other words, though the closing performance of Mendelssohn’s woefully underrated C minor Trio lacks nothing in terms of fantasy or symphonic sweep – and the speed and agility of the Scherzo (one of those fairy music moto perpetuos) positively takes the breath away. In many ways, a rewarding disc. (Gramophone)

On 31 October 1847, the Danish composer Niels Gade visited Clara and Robert Schumann in Dresden, with the news that Felix Mendelssohn was seriously ill in Leipzig. Mendelssohn died a few days later after a series of strokes; Schumann and Gade were pall-bearers. This disc from the Phoenix Piano Trio (Sholto Kynoch, piano, Jonathan Stone, violin, Christian Elliott, cello) celebrates the links between the three composers who all came to know each other in Leipzig in the 1830s and 1840s. The links between Schumann and Mendelssohn are well known, but the presence of the Danish composer Niels Gade is more intriguing, yet when Mendelssohn died it was Gade who was seen as his natural successor in charge of the Gewandhaus Orchester. The Prussian/Danish war of Schleswig-Holstein put paid to that and Gade, returning to Denmark, would live until 1890, becoming a somewhat old-fashioned figure in the Wagnerian flush of the later 19th century. When Schumann wrote a mad rush of chamber music in 1842, he never quite finished a piano trio, and when he returned to chamber music in 1847 he wrote two, the Piano Trio in D minor Op. 63, and the Piano Trio in F major Op. 80. The first rather troubled, the second (the one on this disc) rather friendlier. Perhaps one stimulus was that his wife had already written her piano trio, her magnum opus, in 1846. The first movement of Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 2, however friendly, is full of drama. Its extrovert opening is well captured by the players, with more thoughtful moments as the movement develops and some distinctly Bachian writing in the development. As with much of Schumann’s piano chamber music, this is a piano-led piece but Sholto Kynoch never pushes himself forward overmuch and what impresses is the thoughtful give and take between the players. The atmospheric slow movement opens with a wonderful passage with the two strings weaving quiet lines over Kynoch’s throbbing chords, the sympathy of the three creating real magic. The third movement is a sort of melancholy waltz with a strange syncopated rhythm which makes it lurch along, hoppity-kick. The players make it rather haunting and with hints of underlying unease. The finale is light textured and exhilarating, and rather recalls Schumann’s piano writing. In fact, Schumann’s piano based chamber music can often seem an extension of his piano solo writing, but here the trio almost make that a virtue and all three players contribute equally to the thoughtful atmosphere. It was Schumann who seems to have used the term Noveletten for his piano pieces Opus 21, and Gade adopted it for his 1853 pieces for piano trio which were written in Copenhagen. The work consists of five contrasting movements, which showcase Gade’s melodic felicity and feeling for the chamber textures of the genre. The first lively, dramatic and scherzo-ish with attractively varied textures formed from three independent lines, the second movement graceful and fluid, with lovely intertwining lines and the spirit of Schumann not far away. The players make the third movement strongly characterised, and full of interesting rhythms, with a delicate middle section, then comes a lovely a song without words, again with a lovely fluidity to the scoring, and the finale full of Schuman-esque charm and impetuous drama. Mendelssohn’s second piano trio dates from 1845, just two years before his death and a period when he managed to cram in writing music such as the Violin Concerto, along with being administrator and conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchester in Leipzig. The piano writing in both Mendelssohn’s trios is virtuoso (he had rewritten his first trio at composer Ferdinand Hiller’s urging to make it more ‘modern’). The result can sometimes turn the works into mini-piano concertos without a sympathetic performance such as the one it gets here. The first movement is fast, but quiet and very atmospheric, with very mobile dynamics and some wonderful textures, moments of urgent excitement. A sense of the dynamism of the textures and the vivid dynamics is something which seems to characterise all the movements in the piece. Neither string player has a really fat sound, so they combine intensity with elegance, and Kynoch’s piano is finely virtuoso without ever turning the work into a concerto. The slow movement starts out as a song without words, with the piano eventually being joined by the strings to develop the texture with some lovely singing lines. The scherzo is full of vivid scurrying, the fairies were very much back, with the three players giving us some brilliant playing, and excitement too. The Finale begins lyrically passionate, again with a very mobile texture with a lovely give and take between the players. And then the music dissolves into a chorale, then Mendelssohn combines the two into something lyrically passionate. (Planet Hugill)

I daresay this isn’t the first recording to focus on the confluence of talent in Leipzig in the middle of the 19th century, but in the piano trio genre, it is certainly the first time that a Gade piece has been included with those of his “old friends” (Schumann’s words). The Schumann Piano Quintet is one of my favourite chamber works, so I have always found it odd that I have struggled to warm to any of his three trios. Schumann’s description of his second trio was that it “makes a friendlier and more immediate impression” than the stormy first and the jaunty opening certainly bears witness to that. I’m pleased to report that the Phoenix Piano Trio is nudging me towards a greater appreciation with a performance of sparkle, charm and emotion. The five miniatures that Gade named after the Schumann piano set are certainly a very appropriate inclusion as the influences of his “old friends” are very obvious. I will probably offend aficionados of the composer by saying that melodic invention wasn’t his strongest suit, but the alternating fast-slow movements are always enjoyable company with plenty of rhythmic vitality and interest. The fourth movement Larghetto con moto is particularly charming (MusicWeb International)

Track listing
  1. Piano Trio No. 2, in F major, Op. 80 – I – Sehr lebhaft (Schumann)
  2. Piano Trio No. 2, in F major, Op. 80 – II – Mit innigem Ausdruck – Lebhaft (Schumann)
  3. Piano Trio No. 2, in F major, Op. 80 – III – In maessiger Bewegung (Schumann)
  4. Piano Trio No. 2, in F major, Op. 80 – IV – Nicht zu rasch (Schumann)
  5. Novelletten, Op. 29 – I – Allegro scherzando (Gade)
  6. Novelletten, Op. 29 – II – Andantino con moto (Gade)
  7. Novelletten, Op. 29 – III – Moderato (Gade)
  8. Novelletten, Op. 29 – IV – Larghetto con moto (Gade)
  9. Novelletten, Op. 29 – V – Finale. Allegro (Gade)
  10. Piano Trio No. 2, in C minor, Op. 66 – I – Allegro energico e con fuoco (Mendelssohn)
  11. Piano Trio No. 2, in C minor, Op. 66 – II – Andante espressivo (Mendelssohn)
  12. Piano Trio No. 2, in C minor, Op. 66 – III – Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto (Mendelssohn)
  13. Piano Trio No. 2, in C minor, Op. 66 – IV – Finale: Allegro appassionato (Mendelssohn)