Mozart: Piano Trios, Divertimento In B Flat K 254 / Kungsbacka Trio

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MOZART Divertimento in B?, K 254. Piano Trios: No. 1; No. 3 Kungsbacka Tr NAXOS 8.570518 (63:28)

While the string quartet and piano trio almost certainly originated in earlier Baroque models, Franz Joseph Haydn is generally credited with having established both of them as permanent, formalized fixtures, if by no other measure than sheer dint of his voluminous output. At latest tally, Haydn’s piano trios number 45, though in the late 1970s, when the Beaux Arts Trio set out to record its monumental œuvre intégral for Philips, there were 43; and in a more recent period-instruments set from the Van Swieten Trio on Brilliant Classics that calls itself “complete” the total seems to have dwindled to 37. I suppose one could explain away the discrepancy based on an interpretation of what constitutes a piano trio; for clearly Haydn’s earliest efforts in the medium (he began writing trios as early as 1766 and continued as late as 1797) resemble more closely the trio sonata from which the piano trio most likely evolved.

No such ambiguities or count controversies exist when it comes to Mozart’s piano trios; for there are only six of them, and of those, all but one were written late in the composer’s life, between 1786 and 1788, a period that saw the creation of some of his greatest works. And yet, the trios have long been consigned to a seat at the back of the bus. It’s understandable, I suppose, to regard the modest forces of a piano trio as Lilliputian compared to the cast of singers and players to be marshaled for a performance of The Marriage of Figaro , completed in the same year as the G-Major Trio. But if you listen closely to these miniature masterpieces, you will hear the mature Mozart at work, with all of the perfection of craftsmanship and subtleties of melodic and harmonic expression to be found in the scores dating from the composer’s last five years.

That Mozart had the advantage of Haydn’s trios as models meant that he did not have to reinvent the wheel; it was ready-made for him to adopt and advance. Haydn had to learn how to free the cello from its trio sonata role of merely doubling the left hand of the keyboard part. Even in Mozart’s first foray into the medium, his 1776 B?-Major Divertimento, K 254, much of the time the cello still plays Doppelganger to the bass line. But by the time he came to write his five mature piano trios, Mozart had absorbed and in some ways surpassed what he learned from Haydn. I would not be prepared to claim, however, that the works in this medium, either by Haydn or by Mozart, prognosticate the piano trio’s future in the hands of Beethoven; for its transformation by Beethoven into a supersized and supercharged vessel for dramatic and expressive communication would cement its permanence, along with that of the string quartet, as the most populous and significant chamber music genre even unto the present day.

The 11-year-old Kungsbacka Trio (Malin Broman, violin; Jesper Svedberg, cello; and Simon Crawford-Phillips, piano) was formed in 1997 and takes its name from the Swedish town that hosted its first public performance in 2001. The current release, designated by Naxos as Volume 1, promises a follow-on disc containing Mozart’s remaining three trios. As of this writing, however, the Kungsbacka Trio has made only two other recordings—Schubert’s great E?-Major Piano Trio, also for Naxos, and for BIS a program of works by contemporary Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist.

Despite the modest scale and the less than crown-jewel worth accorded these trios, there has been no dearth of high-profile ensembles that have committed them to disc, among them the always trustworthy Beaux Arts Trio, long available in a budget twofer from Philips, as well as more recent entries from the Florestan and Parnassus Trios on Hyperion and MDG respectively, and my own personal favorite from the Gryphon Trio on Analekta. Not to slight the period-instruments buffs, there’s also the Trio Stradivari on cpo and the London Fortepiano Trio on Hyperion.

The Kungsbacka Trio is a modern-instruments ensemble, but it plays stylishly and tastefully. Translation: articulation is crisp, vibrato is minimal, tempos are spirited in allegro movements and forward moving in andante movements, open strings are not avoided, and first-movement exposition repeats are taken.

For those who don’t already have one or more versions of these trios in their collections and/or who are not uncompromising advocates for period instruments, the Kungsbacka Trio can be recommended for very fine playing, and Naxos’s recording, at a price that can’t be beat, is excellent. A most satisfying first installment of Mozart’s six piano trios; I look forward to its completion.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570518

  • UPC: 747313051878

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Kungsbacka Piano Trio