Arte Nova 74321888332
Arte Nova 74321888332

CD Reviews: Piano Trios Nos.1-4

Piano Trio No.1 op.102, Piano Trio No.2 op.112, Piano Trio No.3 op.155 and Piano Trio No.4 op.158

Il Trittico
Arte Nova 74321888332 2001 DDD 2CDs 64:42 & 64:42

Recording labels have only just begun to explore Raff's large chamber music catalogue and many important works remain unexplored. So it is rather frustrating that there is already duplication of the complete piano trios in the shape of this new Arte Nova issue. This ungrateful niggle aside, we should be pleased to have a choice of performance for these glorious works which are central to Raff's chamber music output and are powerful ambassadors for his art. It is Il Trittico's misfortune that, despite having apparently recorded the works before CPO's Trio Opus 8, the latter's performances are the benchmark against which the new issue will be judged because those CDs were issued first.

The Arte Nova edition scores a point even before hearing a note - this budget double CD set costs scarcely the price of one CPO disk. But economy aside - how do the challengers fare? The overall impression is that Il Trittico present impeccably prepared, technically excellent, beautifully integrated and thoroughly reliable performances which somehow just fail to inspire in the way that their rivals' readings do. This is a great shame as there is so much to commend these solid and persuasive interpretations.

Raff's notes are certainly faithfully and expertly delivered and the tempi and dynamics are generally well chosen. In fact, the multinational trio's ensemble is more secure than Trio Opus 8's and they diligently follow Raff's interpretive markings. But there is something faintly flat and clinical about the overall effect and one is reminded of Woldemar Bargiel's jibe that Raff "produces ideas and melodies that appear as if they should tear the soul from the body, but one is left with the conviction that their inventor felt absolutely nothing for them".

Listen to an audio extract This excerpt, the start of the Trio No.2's third movement, shows the plodding tempo adopted for this and other slow movements [1:39]

Their CPO rivals give the lie to Bargiel in passionate and exciting readings. It would be unfair to say that the Arte Nova three give us emotionless run-throughs of these four wonderful pieces - if these were the only performances available it would be churlish to complain about them. Trio Opus 8 transcend Il Trittico perhaps because they are prepared to take risks. Sometimes they fail, but more often Raff's creations are sent soaring to a higher level of beauty than Il Trittico can conjure up.

Listen to an audio extract This excerpt is the opening of the 4th. Trio's finale - one of the more satisfying movements in the set and an improvement on Trio Opus 8's performance [1:22]

Il Trittico are generally at their best in the fleeting, fitful scherzi which zip past in a suitably breathless way. They make a much more satisfying stab at the fourth trio's finale than do the competition but this is the exception; generally Raff's joi de vivre seems formulaic in their finales and Trio Opus 8's wit is missing.

The momentum so necessary to making Raff's opening movements a success is certainly present - but a hint of blandness often results from its unvarying application here. The biggest disappointments are the slow movements, all but one of which are around a minute longer in these new readings. They contain some of the loveliest music written by Raff but need not be taken at such a generally slow pace.

At a basic level, there is nothing fatally wrong and anyone new to the music who buys this budget release will get a fair impression of the works. In Il Trittico's hands, however, there is insufficient light and shade, variation of pace and dynamic contrast to bring these four marvels fully to life.

The recording acoustic mirrors the performances - perfectly adequate but not exciting. The comprehensive insert notes are enlivened by an occasionally idiosyncratic translation from the German original - again "adequate" is the word.

Recommendable as a budget issue, but not the best available.

Mark Thomas

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