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Brahms / Trio Frontenac

Release Date: 07/21/2009 
Label:  Fidelio Musique   Catalog #: 27   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Frontenac
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Piano Trio No. 1 (1889). Violin Sonata No. 3 Tr Frontenac FIDELIO 27 (56:18)

It isn’t often that I find fault with recordings of a Brahms piano trio or violin sonata. I’m too smitten by the music itself to quibble over minor imperfections. But there are some flaws to be noted here that, for me, on repeated hearings, progressed from minor to major, and I don’t mean from sad to glad. First among them is the poor balance of the recording itself. Read more

These performances were recorded in 2005 at Domaine Forget, St-Rénée, in Québec, and a blurb on the last page of the enclosed booklet provides a technical description of Fidelio’s “XtractHD” process, which is alleged to “restore stereo spread, spatial positioning, hall characteristics, and the timbre of each instrument.” But it still takes recording engineers to operate the equipment and monitor for hall ambiance, volume levels, balance, and a host of other variables. So unless the hall itself or the players’ instruments are to blame, it has to be either the “XtractHD” process or the recording engineers at the controls that are at fault. My vote goes to the engineers; for if there is one rule every engineer should know and abide by, it’s that when recording any Brahms chamber work for piano and one or more string or wind instruments, the piano does not need any help. Brahms took care of that himself.

Simply put, in Brahms’s full-chorded forte passages, Suzanne Beaubien’s piano swamps and swallows up Darren Lowe’s and Blair Lofgren’s violin and cello. But it isn’t just that glorious moments of passionate yearning, like the violin’s tremolando passage in the trio section of the Scherzo movement, are rendered barely audible, it’s that both the violin and the cello seem to recede into the background every time the piano comes to the fore. This is not what I would call “restoring stereo spread and spatial positioning.” If anything, it’s just the opposite. Too many details in this recording are lost, just one of many being the first movement exposition repeat, which also forfeited.

It’s a bit odd, I suppose, to pair one of Brahms’s violin sonatas with one of his piano trios, though you could make the case that both works are the composer’s last in each of these genres, the revised 1889 version of his Piano Trio No. 1 in B-Major (the one almost always played) post-dating the last of his three numbered trios, the Piano Trio No. 3 in C-Minor, op. 101 (1886).

In the performance of the Trio, certain aspects of Lowe’s violin playing are not as exposed, and therefore not as bothersome, as they are in the Sonata where there is no cello to camouflage the problems. Lowe’s vibrato and tone production, more than anything else, are what give me pause. His vibrato has a wobbly character to it that becomes especially annoying in the sustained notes on the instrument’s G and D strings in the drawn-out Adagio movement. Lowe’s intonation is true and his overall technique solid, but his tone production across the range of his violin doesn’t sound evenly balanced, becoming thinner and sort of washed-out sounding on the A and E strings. Again, the recording seems to be the culprit in some of this, with Lowe tending to recede into a more distant, draped space as the piano rises up in agitated voice in the Sonata’s concluding Presto agitato movement.

The Trio Frontenac (not to be confused with the now retired Trio Fontenay) is of recent formation, and as far as I know this may be their first and only commercial recording. As a duo, however, Darren Lowe and Suzanne Beaubien have been working together for 25 years. Back in 25:4, Michael Ullman reviewed what may have been a precursor to the present disc, though it was on a different label, Eclectra. On it Lowe and Beaubien played Brahms A-Major Violin Sonata (No. 2), and were joined by Martin Limoges for a performance of the Horn Trio. Ullman voiced no serious complaints, but did note that Lowe sounded a bit tentative in places and would not replace his favorite, Arthur Grumiaux.

Not all the fault with this release, but much of it, as noted above, lies with the recording. And in this oft-recorded repertoire, there are almost too many frontrunners to choose from. For a stand-alone recording of Brahms’s B-Major Piano—i.e., outside of an integral set—coupled with Mendelssohn’s D-Minor Piano Trio, I would still urge acquisition of the Jalina Trio’s Classico disc, of which I said in 29:3, “Never—and I mean never—have I heard either of these works played with such expressive nuance and exquisite, heartfelt sensitivity. These performances speak to me of a rapture regularly sought but rarely achieved.” As for Brahms’s D-Minor Violin Sonata, I’m afraid that my favorites come only as part of integral sets, two of which appeared almost simultaneously, those by Ulf Wallin and Roland Pöntinen on Arte Nova and Nikolaj Znaider and Yefim Bronfman on RCA, both reviewed in 31:2. The new full-priced Fidelio CD is probably not the best investment you can make.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Trio for Piano and Strings no 1 in B major, Op. 8 by Johannes Brahms
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Frontenac
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854/1889; Germany 
Sonata for Violin and Piano no 3 in D minor, Op. 108 by Johannes Brahms
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Frontenac
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1886-1888; Austria 

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