Alte Musik Köln

Mendelssohn: Piano Trios

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The ensemble Alte Musik Köln is an offshoot of the venerable historical-instrument group Musica Antiqua Köln, apparently formed with the intent of spreading the practices of authentic performance into the realm of Romantic chamber music. The historical instruments used here include an 1835 piano from the Berlin maker Kisting, as well as a violin, viola, and cello strung with gut and lacking certain modern conveniences such as a chin rest in the case of the violin. The basic sound of the ensemble remains quite different from those of Mendelssohn recordings played on modern instruments. The biggest differences come with the piano of Tobias Koch, with its murky lower register and tinkly, almost harpsichord-like top. These result in a striking variety of piano textures that define the presence of the piano in the ensemble sharply and lend a distinctively poetic presence to its solo passages. The gut strings are especially noticeable in the two small pieces for cello and piano that conclude the disc; cellist Klaus-Dieter Brandt gives the cello an almost human voice, and his interactions with Koch in the two major piano trios that form the program's centerpiece are quite compelling. Another noteworthy feature of the disc is the presence of a trio for piano, violin, and viola, a student work of the 11-year-old Mendelssohn that apparently has never been recorded before. It is dutiful in reproducing the Viennese style but has a hard-to-pin-down Mendelssohnian flavor. Downsides to the album include rather wandering readings of the slow movements in both the piano trios, miserable graphic design that renders the notes (in German and English) almost illegible, and overresonant church sound (at least as sampled on a conventional stereo) that obscures the piano's top register in forte passages. Still, this is a pioneering Mendelssohn recording that manages in an indefinable way to put the listener in the shoes of the first hearers of this music.

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