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Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Trios No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49, & No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66
Itzhak Perlman (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (violoncello), Emanuel Ax (piano)
Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, NY (2010) – 59'46
Sony Masterworks 52192 – Booklet in English

Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, an all-star piano trio line-up if there ever was one, collaborate in their first recording together as a chamber group in the two captivating trios of Felix Mendelssohn. The expected technical finesse and purity of tone that each of these musicians brings to their solo repertoire are on fine display in this group effort, and the players have a delicious panache that makes the recording a delight from first note to last.

Pride of place must go to Ax, whose recordings as a pianist continue to get better and better. Here, he masters the busy pianistic textures with prodigious clarity. Important melodic lines are always intelligently phrased and are supported by thoughtfully emphasized inner voice figurations and solid bass movement. His handling of simpler passagework is likewise a perfect example of voicing and balance. As expected, Ma's glorious tone shines in his long, lyrical lines, and he also brings the most flamboyance of the group to the many sforzando indications in the score. Perlman tends not to dig in with as much gusto as Ma, but his impeccable technique and beautiful tone in maddeningly rapid and arching lyrical passages alike solidify the ensemble's repartee.

In both trios, tempos of the outer movements are more measured than others such as Stern/Rose/Istomin, also on Sony, or the Gould Trio on Naxos. Tempos in the middle movements are exaggerated, the slow movements proceeding with slightly more flow than usual, the scherzos sparkling at diabolical speeds. The scherzo of the first trio is especially admirable, taken at a very brisk tempo yet maintaining the perfect leggiero feel, especially in Ax's finely-feathered phrase endings.

In first movements, the trio projects a powerful structural trajectory. There is plenty of momentum in both, built largely on Ma's presence when doubling the piano's bass line, creating powerful harmonic pull to and from cadences. The trio easily overcomes the shear length of both movements, which in the wrong hands can become cumbersome. The C minor trio doesn't start with as much spectral mystery as it could, but its opening movement comes across as more genuinely disturbing than the melancholy-but-benign opening of the D minor trio, and this conception is committed and convincing.

The moodiness of the D minor finale is well-construed. The light, youthful exuberance so typical of Mendelssohn is set in striking repose with the modal interplay, nostalgic feel and heft that lends a Schubertian grandness to the piece. In the finale of the C minor trio, when Perlman rises above the others and states the Lutheran doxology, it is a glorious moment of striking repose, and this passage sums up everything we love about Perlman's playing.

The recorded sound captures every essence of the playing beautifully. A closer recording might have added a bit more intimacy and amped up some of the more brusque moments in the works, but the ample resonance adds an equally suitable glow. At slightly under an hour, one wishes that Sony would have included some of the Songs without Words that appear to have been on trio's 2009 Carnegie Hall programs commemorating the Mendelssohn bicentennial. This recording stands high among a small but rich discography of these works, providing a fine alternative to the two mentioned above and the recent, rawer recording from Julia Fischer and friends on Pentatone.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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