> Beethoven - Violin Sonata No. 9 [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No 9 Op 47 Kreutzer
Seven Variations in E Flat Major on Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen from Die Zauberflöte
Piano Trio Op 97 Archduke
Alfred Cortot, piano
Jacques Thibaud, violin
Pablo Casals, cello
Recorded in London and Paris, 1927-29
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110195 [71’11]


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It’s a measure of the paucity of recordings of the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals trio – itself a direct result of their deliberately limited repertoire – that this latest release in Naxos’s series has only one performance by the Trio itself. This all-Beethoven affair presents the Archduke Trio, supported by Thibaud and Cortot’s Kreutzer and the only recording ever made by Casals and Cortot as a duo, the Mozart Variations.

The disc begins with the Kreutzer Sonata, recorded unusually in the Salle Chopin and Salle Pleyel in Paris – the recording locations changed over the two-day period though there’s no audible change in acoustic. It’s always been a matter of profound regret that Thibaud never recorded either the Beethoven Concerto or the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante – a performance with his superb colleague, the violist Maurice Vieux, must now remain just a dream – but the Kreutzer does indicate directions and priorities in Thibaud’s Beethoven playing from which we may be able to draw reasonable conclusions. His playing, light, sweet, somewhat small in scale, sits at a somewhat rarefied tangential remove from the more explosive central European or Russian approaches. His gorgeously equalized scale is as ever a thing of wonder as is the faint whiff of raffiné phrasing in the first movement. The opening statement, for instance, is decidedly withdrawn – there’s nothing of Huberman’s almost coarse projection, little of Heifetz’s febrile theatricality, or the gaunt sobriety of many German players. Instead Thibaud avoids the disruptive implosions that others find in the music though he’s never immune from the quicksilver changes of direction implicit in it. There are very occasional intonational problems but Thibaud’s lyrical impress is always marvellous but for all the manifold felicities – Thibaud’s elfin and floated tone, Cortot’s tremendously animated left hand in the Variations second movement, the clarity and purposefulness of the concluding part of that movement - and for all that the work ends in conclusive strength there is still something missing of elemental power and projection.

The Mozart variations are charmingly done by Casals and Cortot – no balance problems, no disruptive mannerisms, though there are some scuffs audible in the generally good transfers. The Archduke features the trio in a performance of almost symphonic breadth. When Casals re-recorded the work, in 1951 at the Perpignan Festival, he and his colleagues Alexander Schneider and Eugene Istomin, albeit that they played the first movement recapitulation, added an extraordinary ten minutes to the 1929 recording, which already clocked in at over 35’54 minutes – Naxos’ timings are completely wrong when they claim it lasts 29’28. As ever the tonal disparities between Thibaud and Casals are abundantly and often constructively, creatively part of the special alchemy that made their recordings so distinctive. As a performance there are some ensemble lapses but here in 1929 Casals was far less inclined to linger over phrases, as he was to become, and retains a gruff and powerful expressivity throughout, with Thibaud’s gorgeous liquidity and sweetness of tone and Cortot’s agile and decisive pianism adding their own unique pleasures. It’s true that Casals experiences small intonational problems in the opening movement but nothing eclipses the nobility or the trio’s control of the long line, though the extent of the rhapsodic slow movement is surely questionable. It’s not, in the end, an unambiguously great performance – even a contemporary performance, recorded two years earlier by the Anglo-Australian trio of Albert Sammons, W H Squire and William Murdoch [on Pearl GEM 0044] yields comprehensively more coherence and tonal congruity, tighter in tempo relationships and structure. Nevertheless this is still a marvellous opportunity to hear the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals trio individually and collectively as Beethovenians of solid accomplishment.

Jonathan Woolf

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