It’s not often that a Schumann-Mendelssohn release packs many surprises. Then again, it’s really not often that a Schumann-Mendelssohn release focuses on the music of Clara and Fanny (rather than Robert and Felix). To judge from the Nash Ensemble’s recent entry in Hyperion’s catalogue, maybe there should be more of these?
To be sure, Clara Schumann’s 1845-46 Piano Trio in G minor is a masterpiece. Lyrical, turbulent, subtle, bracingly contrapuntal, this is a piece that’s both put together by a master (or mistress?) of the craft and has something to say.
The first of its four movements is songful and, at least until the development, fairly restrained: only then do its underlying tensions fully release. A winsome, asymmetrically phrased minuet follows (replete with a mournful, sigh-filled Trio), and the third movement soars like a (Felix) Mendelssohn Song without Words. The finale recalls the tempestuous nature of the opening movement, until the coda brings a measure of triumph.
Fanny Mendelssohn’s 1847 D minor Piano Trio is, likewise, a stirring essay. Completed just before her sudden death that spring, its first movement brims with fire and energy, while the central pair are lovely and graceful. In the finale, a fantasia-like piano solo gives way to a brilliant main body, full of neat harmonic turns and reprises of motives heard earlier in the piece as the music makes its way to the double bar.
Fanny’s 1834 String Quartet in E-flat major is similarly captivating. The first movement features a passionate conversations between the four members of the ensemble. In the middle come, respectively, a lithe, tripping scherzo and a flowing, lyrical ‘Romanze’. An exuberant, elfin finale wraps the whole piece up.
Throughout, the Nash Ensemble turns in just the sort of vibrant, brilliant readings these pieces demand—and deserve. Their take on the exceptional Schumann is warm and characterful; if the first half of the finale drags a bit, well, the remainder picks up just in time. And both Mendelssohn scores are played to the hilt. The Trio’s striking ideas (like the first movement’s tremolando figures) all come off invigoratingly. As for the Quartet, this is an invigoratingly expressive and stylish account.
Indeed, for all three of these works, the Nash’s are, arguably, definitive performances.