While I have only the notes for the Beethoven Trio, Cohler posits a similar sort of lineage for the program of the disc "Jonathan Cohler & Claremont Trio." The link between Beethoven and Brahms has been so long acknowledged that we needn't discuss it here; that between Brahms and Dohnányi is if anything even more direct. Dohnányi studied with two Brahms protégés, and Brahms was one of his earliest and most enthusiastic supporters. Still, the combination of works seems not completely natural; first of all, Beethoven's Trio is an early, light-hearted work, as Cohler points out, more Classical than Romantic, while Brahms's is quintessentially, Romantically autumnal-actually, a product of his "Indian Summer," the first piece he wrote for Richard Mühlfeld after having sworn off composition with the completion of the G-Major String Quintet, op. 111 in 1890. The Dohnányi is undeniably Brahmsian, as is most of his work, but its instrumentation, for one, sets it quite apart from the other two works on the disc.
Cohler's program note for the Beethoven Trio takes on another contentious topic,
that of Beethoven's (or, in the present case, Czerny's) metronome markings. The players are not doctrinaire, however. They take what I think is the sensible approach; while their tempos in fast movements are quicker than average, they never reach the point where passages cannot be cleanly articulated or rhythmically accurate. The result is a delightfully lively first movement, including some small, tasteful ornamental flourishes in the exposition repeat. The rest of the work likewise gives much pleasure; the recording is ideal, with the piano appropriately prominent but everything audible, and the playing is uniformly lovely.
The performance of the Brahms, the emotional heart of the program, stresses its autumnal characteristics over the blood-and-guts that some read into this work. Cohler plays some exquisite pianissimos, Julia Bruskin matches him in beauty of sound and expression, and the ensemble overall is uncannily, highly nuanced. This version definitely takes its place on my shelf along with the other great stereo recordings
of the Trio: Leister/Donderer/Eschenbach (DG), Wright/Eskin/Kalish (Nonesuch, LP), and Shifrin/Carr/Golub (Arabesque).
Dohnányi's charming Sextet brings us back closer to the spirit of the Beethoven; I find it an uneven work, however. Its balance of lush post-Romanticism and tongue-in-cheek whimsy, so effortlessly achieved in earlier works such as the Nursery Variations, seems a bit forced; the transition from the cyclic reference to the opening theme of the work to the jazz-influenced Finale is anticlimactic. In a review of an earlier recording (Fanfare 31:6), Jerry Dubins calls the Sextet "the last and greatest of his chamber works." I can't hear it that way, particularly juxtaposed, for example, with the astonishingly fresh, spontaneous-sounding Serenade, op. 10, or the ravishing Second Quartet. As I have said before in these pages, Dohnányi's music after World War I is superbly crafted like all his work, but somehow has less to say. Still, it remains delightfully entertaining stuff.
The "supporting cast" in this version is superb: Claremont violinist Emily Bruskin makes her sole appearance on the disc; hornist James Sommerville (principal, Boston Symphony) and violist Mai Motobuchi (Borromeo Quartet) are top-notch artists. Unfortunately, the recorded balances, ideal for the trios, here unduly favor the piano and winds, so that the string parts are at times almost totally submerged. This does a particular disservice to Emily Bruskin, whose twin sister at least has two other pieces in which to shine. The Bruskin sisters were in a quartet Cohler coached in high school, and won a prize at the prestigious Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition; the Trio were the first winners of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson International Trio Award and the only trio ever to win the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. This is their fourth recording; they have made two for the Tria label and one for Arabesque. One hopes this is not the last we will hear from them on Ongaku.
To recapitulate, then, I know of no finer recording of the Beethoven, and this one stands with the best classic versions of the Brahms. The Endymion Ensemble on ASV makes the Dohnányi perhaps a bit more drab, but the recorded balances are superior.