The Schwarzenberg Trio’s Classical Head and Contemporary Heart

Review by Jed Distler on Classics Today

Although the pandemic upended the Schwarzenberg Trio’s plans to tour with this provocatively contrasted program, they did manage to record it. In the Beethoven Op. 1 No. 1 Trio, the ensemble favors dry-eyed clarity and absolute precision, with textures that emphasize leanness and transparency. Indeed, the unanimity with which the string players and pianist Hanna Bachmann match each other’s runs and cadences is almost scary.

They take the Scherzo’s Allegro assai at quite a clip, and one could argue that the music moves a little too fast for the music’s witty profile to settle in the ear. Yet the Adagio gains warmth as it unfolds, with the climactic trills expressively shaped and contoured.

Similar ensemble values characterize the Schwarzenberg’s Mendelssohn D minor Trio, which comes off best in the first two movements. The musicians’ scrupulous adherence to Mendelssohn’s dynamics and phrasings underline the opening movement’s classical proportions, while somewhat underplaying its agitato qualities. They bring eloquent simplicity and an easy singing style to the slow movement. Every note of the Scherzo is firmly in place, yet the notey articulation lacks the winged suppleness that Martha Argerich magically serves up with the Capuçon brothers. Though technically faultless, the Finale comes off sounding relatively emphatic and square when measured alongside the lither, lighter, and far more flexible Stern/Rose/Istomin Trio recording.

Werner Pirchner (1940-2001) was a multi-instrumentalist jazz musician who gradually shifted his creative focus toward composition. His Piano Trio subtitled “Heimat” is a strange yet quite compelling work. The first movement, titled Aus dem Nichts?, contains folk-inspired melodies supported by string pizzicatos and single piano notes in all registers. The second movement, Wiesel?, opens with angular, aggressive outbursts that contrast to the third-movement Stimmungslied?’s slow and gorgeous chorale-like passages. The fourth movement, Freundlich?, begins as a Schumann/Bach pastiche and slowly disintegrates into something darker and less conclusive.

What I love about the Schwarzenberg’s performance is that for all of its technical finesse, the players are not afraid to open up their tonal palettes and fully embrace the composer’s dynamic extremes and sudden stylistic detours. They seem to ignore the studio microphone’s unforgiving scrutiny, and simply throw caution to the wind, playing the living hell out of Pirchner’s music. On the basis of this release, the Schwarzenberg Trio’s collective head rests in the classics, while its heart lies in contemporary repertoire.