CHOPIN Piano Trio. Rondo in C, op. 731. Variations for Flute and Piano2. Valse mélancolique in f?. Mazurka in D • Kungsbacka Pn Trio; 1Philip Moore (pn); 2Emily Beynon (fl) • NAXOS 8572585 (52:40)
ChopinRead more isn’t usually the first, or even the second, composer who comes to mind when one starts making a mental list of 19th-century piano trios, but write one he did, and a surprisingly ambitious one at that, considering he was only 18 at the time, in 1828. It’s a substantial work in four movements and intensely passionate in expression. It’s surprising, really, how fully romantic the piece is in light of the fact that it was composed in the same year that Schubert completed his B?-Major Piano Trio and that it comes 11 years before Mendelssohn’s popular Piano Trio No. 1. It’s equally surprising that having demonstrated such an obvious gift for chamber music at such a young age Chopin should have taken so little interest in the medium going forward. Except for a couple of minor pieces for cello and piano, his only other major contribution was the Cello Sonata, completed in 1846, toward the end of his life.
The Kungsbacka Piano Trio (Malin Broman, violin; Jesper Svedberg, cello; and Simon Crawford-Phillips, piano) was formed in 1997. Since then, the ensemble has gone on to win a number of awards and has appeared internationally to critical acclaim. I can vouch for the ensemble’s excellence, having reviewed the Kungsbacka’s stylishly played recordings of Mozart’s piano trios in Fanfare 32:5 and 32:6.
There’s considerable recorded competition in Chopin’s trio, not least from a CD now available on Hyperion’s budget Helios label with Leila Josefowicz, Carter Brey, and Garrick Ohlsson, but the Kungsbacka Trio doesn’t disappoint. The ensemble’s players throw themselves into the music with a good deal of fervor, and in their hands it sounds a riper and more mature effort than the youthful work it is.
The rondo for two pianos dates from the same year as the piano trio and was written by Chopin while he was a student at the Warsaw Conservatory. Though he conceived the piece for solo piano, he later arranged it for two pianos, but it wasn’t published until 1855, which is what accounts for its misleadingly high opus number.
The variations for flute and piano on Rossini’s aria “Non più mesta” from La Cenerentola is even earlier; Chopin wrote the piece when he was 14, and like the rondo, it too was published posthumously, but without an opus number. In Maurice J. E. Brown’s catalog of Chopin’s works, it’s identified as B 9. The work shows promise, but Chopin was not a boy wonder on the order of Mozart, Schubert, or Mendelssohn.
The D-Major Mazurka, another piece published posthumously, is another relatively early exercise dated 1832 and entered in the Krystyna Kobyla?ska catalog as KK IVb/2. It, in turn, however, is a reworking of an 1829 piece listed by Kobyla?ska as KK IVa/7 and by Brown as B 31.
In essence then, though no album title announces it as such, the entire program on this disc is a collection of some of Chopin’s earliest works; to be as generous as possible, let’s just say that you wouldn’t necessarily recognize most of these pieces as being by Chopin. That doesn’t mean, however, that the music isn’t enjoyable. The flute piece is particularly charming and, short as it is, in five minutes’ time it affords the flutist ample opportunity to display his or her technical skill. Emily Beynon does so superbly, maintaining a smooth, even, sweet tone throughout, and you will not hear a single breath break or intake.
The flute piece, the rondo for two pianos, the mazurka, and the Valse mélancolique all qualify as the type of music one might have expected to hear in Europe’s 19th-century salons, which is not a criticism, for they are well made and of good quality, even if they don’t yet entirely bear the fingerprints of the composer who would become Chopin. The closest we come to that, I think, is in the very touching waltz, which exhibits a characteristic halting rhythm broken by rests and, only 24 bars into the piece, an exquisite shift from F?-Minor to F?-Major. The Kungsbacka Trio’s pianist, Simon Crawford-Phillips, plays the piece with real feeling for its “valse triste” mood.
Joining Crawford-Phillips for the rondo is pianist Philip Moore. Note author Keith Anderson has it right in stating that the piece “reflects the fashionable idiom of the time rather than anything of the language that Chopin was later to make his own.” Neither Crawford-Phillips nor Philip Moore can be blamed for this two-piano gymnastics workout in nonstop scales and arpeggios. The music is as vacuous as the nearly 10-minute void it fills. Hummel, Kalkbrenner, and Thalberg turned out similar potboilers.
The Piano Trio, of course, is the main item on the menu, and in terms of its scale, quality of material, and compositional strength, it’s really quite remarkable that Chopin could have written it at pretty much the same time he composed all of these other pieces.
Performances and recording are excellent, and instead of coupling the piano trio with another like work by another composer, Naxos offers an interesting alternative in presenting an all-Chopin collection of some of his earliest works all written during his formative years. Definitely recommended.