With the sudden barrage of piano trio recordings--in effect a survey of the core repertory, Haydn excepted, for piano, violin and cello--we are reminded that the string quartet isn't the only viable chamber music configuration, or the only one with a heavyweight repertory.
Ignore anyone who insists that Mozart's trios are among his marginalia. Listen to any accomplished threesome play the splendidly blithe work in E, K. 542, and the point will be made. Far better than merely accomplished are the performances by the Mozartean Players, the American period-instrument ensemble made up of pianist Steven Lubin, violinist Stanley Ritchie and cellist Myron Lutzke.
In their traversal of the six completed trios, the Mozarteans epitomize cutting-edge style, with lively tempos, pertinent, enhancing ornamentation and the rhythmic freedom we had until recent years mistakenly considered appropriate only to music of the Romantic era (Harmonia Mundi 907033/34, two CDs).
The fondly--inaccurately as it turns out--remembered edition of all the Beethoven trios by the Czech Trio is marred by violinist Alexander Plocek's wayward intonation, while the playing of the cellist, Sacha Vectomov, sounds as if it were coming through the wall of an adjoining room in the first CD transfer of these 1964 recordings (Chant du Monde 278 1076/79, four CDs). All of which places a disproportionate burden on the excellent pianist, the late Joseph Palenicek.
Elsewhere, the Castle Trio, a period-instrument group affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, delivers Beethoven's goods expertly.
The first two volumes of its projected cycle of the composer's trios are distinguished by the wit and driving rhythmicality of pianist Lambert Orkis, with violinist Marilyn McDonald and cellist Kenneth Slowik providing strong, characterful support.
While some listeners may find it difficult to cotton to the sound of the old instruments in the noble measures of the "Archduke" Trio (with the "Kakadu" Variations, on Virgin Classics 91442), their lean clarity is made to order for the lighter, more intimately proportioned but hardly inferior E-flat and C-minor Trios of Opus 1 (Virgin Classics 91126).
The Schubert Trios, the "feminine" work in B-flat and the "masculine" E-flat, according to Robert Schumann's categorization, are for this taste the jewels of the repertory. And they have never sounded more dramatic and songful than in the first CD appearance of the decade-old performances by the Odeon Trio (Capriccio 10 387).
The commitment and conversational naturalness of these superbly accomplished artists--pianist Leonard Hokanson (best known as Hermann Prey's recital partner), violinist Kurt Guntner, cellist Angelika May--expose every exquisite facet of the music. An indispensable recording for the lofty quality of the execution and for Capriccio's stunningly lifelike (as differentiated from aural fantasy) sonics.
A lovingly lush-toned, grandly scaled Romantic style is purveyed by Canada's Rembrandt Trio in Brahms' Opus 8 Trio and Dvorak's "Dumky" (Dorian 90160), whereas the youthful Trio Fontenay, from Germany, projects a more propulsive and less personal approach in its pleasingly slenderized "Dumky," coupled with Dvorak's early, unjustly neglected Trio in G minor (Teldec 46451).
In the most recent addition to the standard repertory for this instrumental combination, the harrowing Shostakovich Trio in E minor (1944), the presentation by the Beaux Arts Trio is overheated to the point of hysteria, notably in the second movement, where violinist Isidore Cohen's tone turns alarmingly squally (Philips 432 079).
Where the Beaux Arts hectors, the hardly unexciting but more contained and shapely work of the Swedish threesome of Hans Palsson, Arve Tellefsen and Frans Helmerson moves with the music in a reissue of a 1976 recording (BIS 26). The coupling is Shostakovich's tremendous Eighth String Quartet (1960), which recalls themes from the Trio. The later work is accorded a darkly intense performance by Finland's Voces Intimae Quartet.
The Beaux Arts' version shares a disc with its relentlessly battering reading of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, in which the assisting artists are Eugene Drucker and Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson Quartet. As with the Trio, the case of the music is argued more aggressively than necessary.