Claves CD 50-2912
Claves CD 50-2912

CD Reviews: Piano Trio No.1

Raff: Piano Trio No.1 op.102; Ernest Bloch: Three Nocturnes; Arthur Honegger: Piano Trio in F; Frank Martin: Piano Trio on Popular Irish Folk Tunes

Trio Nota Bene
Claves CD 50-2912 2009 DDD 56:21

This is the third commercial recording of Raff's delightful Piano Trio No.1, which is a welcome statement in itself. Only a few years ago such a prospect would have seemed utterly fanciful but here we are with almost all of his major chamber works recorded, although some have yet to be commercially released, and with some of them duplicated. For several years now there have been two complete cycles of the four piano trios available, from Trio Opus 8 for cpo and from Il Trittico for Arte Nova. Both boast high quality recordings of fine performances, so this new offering from the Trio Nota Bene on the Swiss Claves label is up against stiff competition.

The first thing to say is that, unlike its competitors, this disc is not an all-Raff affair. CPO pairs the the First Trio with the Fourth, whilst Arte Nova's budget two-CD set has all four works for around the same price. The Claves CD's title "Swiss Perspective" signals that in it the trio "honours the prestigious masters whom they came across on their travels" in their native country, as the publicity material has it. In other words, the four composers are Swiss (this is no place to debate Raff's nationality).

Raff's Trio is by far the most substantial work both in ambition and duration, taking up half of the CD's distinctly niggardly 56 minutes. Nota Bene shave half a minute off Opus 8's time for the expansive opening movement and it shows in a performance which seems harder and less mellow than the Germans'. Whilst Il Trittico fall between the two in timing, theirs too is nothing like as driven an interpretation as this newcomer. Raff's opening movements certainly need momentum to succeed and there is plenty of that here, but there also needs to be room to breathe and enjoy his sheer lyricism. Somehow the slower sections don't gladden the heart as they should. There is certainly plenty of virtuosity on display, but not much warmth.

Listen to an audio extarct This extract is from the middle of the first movement [2:12]

In the breakneck second movement Claves' trio are noticeably slower than Il Trittico, whose quicksilver interpretation is a delight. They are still faster than Opus 8 in the trio section which, as a result, doesn't provide the melting contrast with the framing material which it should. This is something which the cpo team do admirably well.

In the wonderful slow movement Nota Bene are perhaps at their best. They let the music speak for itself, not attempting anything fancy by way of interpretive re-thinking of Raff's intentions. Like Opus 8 their tempo moves the music forward and avoids any suspicion of wallow. Unlike them, though, this remains somehow a matter of fact reading, lacking the emotional intensity of their rivals, whose interpretation leaves the impression of a stiff upper lip, barely hiding some deeply felt hurt. Here, we just have the stolid demeanour, with scant impression of the underlying intensity of emotion. Il Trittico, in contrast, squeeze out every last drop of feeling and lay it bare for all to see.

Listen to an audio extarct This extract is from the middle of the slow movement [1:48]

All three trios play the faster sections of the finale as if their lives depended upon it and get similar results, although once again, the new offering somehow lacks the warmth of its rivals in the more relaxed sections of the piece. By now, the picture is pretty clear: whilst the music's technical demands are well within their ability, Trio Nota Bene somehow just don't have a feel for its emotional palette. The result is that, although apart from the first movement their tempi don't differ greatly from their rivals, the impression is given of a hard driven and unfeeling performance which invests the music with no warmth or depth. What a shame.

Although I don't know the other three works at all, I was left with the impression that each is more successful than the Raff and I wonder if the performers are happier with their early 20th. century idiom than they are with Raff's mid-19th. century one? Honegger's very short (and surprisingly romantic) one movement Trio get's a powerfully persuasive performance, Bloch's Three Nocturnes a suitably elliptical one and there's plenty of verve and playfulness in Frank Martin's Irish piece.

The recording ambiance is a little dry and brittle, but the balance is impeccable and there is plenty of depth. Unfortunately, although their playing is technically of a high order, Trio Nota Bene have delivered a cold and unfeeling performance of one of Raff's finest and most rewarding chamber works. This issue is not really recommendable, especially in view of the strong competition from not one, but two rivals.

Mark Thomas
November 2009

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