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Mendelssohn: Piano Trios Nos. 1 & 2 / ATOS Trio

Mendelssohn / Atos Trio
Release Date: 06/28/2011 
Label:  Cpo   Catalog #: 777505-2   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Felix Mendelssohn
Orchestra/Ensemble:  ATOS Trio
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MENDELSSOHN Piano Trios: No. 1; No. 2 Atos Trio CPO 777505 (58:21)

If you thought we’d reached the saturation point for Mendelssohn’s piano trios, think again, for here comes another one. It has to be asked, “Was it really necessary?” Just between Burton Rothleder and me, we must have reviewed at least a dozen new versions within the last year or so. Of course the music is filled with memorable melodies, handsome harmonies, and frolicsome fairies, but how many recordings of these two works does one need—30? Read more 40? They’re out there, should you feel so inclined.

If this sounds a bit cynical, it’s with good reason. Appealing as Mendelssohn’s trios are, they’re not the sort of profound masterworks that invite or admit of much presentational latitude. In fact, most performances I’m familiar with split hairs when it comes to tempos and general interpretive approach. In other words, they all sound pretty much alike. And while the piano parts, so characteristic of Mendelssohn, would probably benefit from a player with 10 fingers on each hand to negotiate the torrent of notes, the parts for violin and cello—except for the two Scherzo movements—are easily within the grasp of many good amateurs and certainly, therefore, all professional players. Translation? Close your eyes, pick a recording at random, and it’s virtually guaranteed to be not only a good one but one that’s very similar to just about any other one you might have picked.

This is not to say there aren’t subtle differences among performances or that I don’t have my own favorites, which include relatively recent accounts by the Wanderer, Florestan, Amsterdam, and Swiss piano trios. But in re-sampling each of them in preparation for this review, it occurred to me that if the names of the ensembles were erased from the faces of the discs and they became separated from their jewel cases—a recurrent nightmare I have—I’m not sure I could tell which one was which. It’s not that the performances are expressionless or devoid of any distinguishing features; rather, it’s that the music seems to determine its own fairly narrow parameters of execution in matters of tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and articulation. The scores just don’t afford much leeway for coloring outside the lines.

In our fast-forward universe, where ensembles seem to be born with the speed of new stars in a stellar nursery, the Atos Trio, formed in 2003, is already middle-aged at nine. The three German nationals—Annette von Hehn, violin; Stefan Heinemeyer, cello; and Thomas Hoppe, piano—who make up the group have compressed into their less-than-a-decade existence more than 300 concert appearances throughout Europe and the U.S., the accumulation of numerous chamber music awards, and the making of at least half a dozen recordings, two of which—a disc of trios by Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, and a CD of trios by Herzogenberg—were warmly received in these pages.

Performance-wise, the Atos’s Mendelssohn is right up there with all of the contenders mentioned above. Should you acquire this release, you can be confident of inviting into your home three sharply dressed, neatly manicured, well-behaved musicians who will repay your hospitality by playing for their dinner many times over. And, unlike another recording of these works by the Trio Ceresio on Doron, presumably reviewed in this same issue, cpo’s recording does a much better job of balancing the ensemble so that the piano is not favored over the strings.

I’m now up to 23 versions of Mendelssohn piano trios, and even though I may have a hard time distinguishing one from another, I wouldn’t part with any of them, and that includes this latest new one by the Atos Trio.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Trio for Piano and Strings no 1 in D minor, Op. 49 by Felix Mendelssohn
Orchestra/Ensemble:  ATOS Trio
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1839; Germany 
Trio for Piano and Strings no 2 in C minor, Op. 66 by Felix Mendelssohn
Orchestra/Ensemble:  ATOS Trio
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1845; Germany 

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