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CD REVIEW
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio No.1 in E flat Op.1/1 [32:45]
Piano Trio No.5 in D Op.70/1 ‘Ghost’ [30:57]
Piano Trio No.4 in B flat Op.11 [21:46]
Piano Trio No.7 in B flat Op.97 ‘Archduke’ [39:23]
Chung Trio (Myung-Whun Chung (piano); Kyung-Wha Chung (violin); Myung-Wha Chung (cello))
rec. Théâtre Impérial, Compiègne, Oise, France, 19-21 November 1991 and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York, 3-5 December 1992. DDD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 3 81751 2 [63:51 + 61:09] 

 


The catalogue is already well stocked with bargain-price versions of the Beethoven Piano Trios, including two complete or near-complete sets on EMI’s own 2-CD Gemini label.  Barenboim, Zukerman and du Pré offer Trios 1-3 with the Archduke on 3 50798 2 and Trios  5 and 8 with the un-numbered E flat Trio, the ‘Kakadu’ Variations and two Cello Sonatas on 3 50807 2.  Ashkenazy, Perlman and Harrell perform a complete set on two Geminis, 5 85493 2 and 5 85496 2.  Both of these rival sets offer formidable competition but the present issue is fully worthy to stand alongside them. 

The Chung Trio set is a reissue of two CDs which appeared in the early 1990s, still coupled as they were on the original discs, though the matrix numbers suggest that they have been re-mastered for this reissue.  The combination of the two best-known works, the so-called ‘Ghost’ and ‘Archduke’, together with the fact that Kyung-Wha Chung is the violinist, will prove a powerful attraction for anyone who buys this set on impulse.  Such purchasers will not be disappointed, though they may be surprised at Kyung-Wha Chung’s comparative reticence in these performances.  In the Romantic and post-Romantic repertoire she is known for the intensity of her playing: this is what makes her performances of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos (475 7734) and the Prokofiev/Stravinsky coupling (476 7226) so recommendable: both of these are treasured discs in my collection in earlier incarnations.  Seen live, she appears so entranced as almost to defy gravity.  She is, however, equally well tuned to the mood of these Beethoven Trios where such extroversion is not appropriate – though this must not be taken as implying that her performances are in any way too subdued. 

Beethoven’s Op.1 Trios were his statement of belief in his own ability in 1795.  Haydn thought that their publication, dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, was slightly premature; when he so informed his pupil, Beethoven accused his mentor of jealousy, later to declare that he had learned more from Salieri than from Haydn, who had taught him very little.  Haydn was right in one respect: these are works for the piano with the other instruments in abeyance, whereas Haydn’s own Piano Trios are much more designed for an equal partnership – as Beethoven’s own later Trios were to become.  Trio No.1 is a substantial but generally sunny four-movement work with, as Bernard Jacobson notes in the booklet, only a few of the signs of the explosive musical personality that would develop later.  As a product of late eighteenth-century classicism, it receives a classical performance: Kyung-Wha Chung never tries to steal the limelight but gels well with her two able siblings. 

Trio No.5 follows on the first CD, a short but mature middle-period work in which all three instrumentalists have important parts to play; by now Beethoven’s work on the six Op.18 and three Op.59 quartets had given him experience in writing for string instruments without piano and this enabled him to share things more evenly.  The three members of the Chung family rise fully to the occasion, especially in the slow movement, marked largo assai ed espressivo, originally intended as a witches’ scene in an uncompleted Macbeth opera.  (This is the movement which earned the piece its nickname.)  Their performance is certainly espressivo without being overdone: although, at 11:09, their time for this movement is somewhat slow this beautiful movement never outstays its welcome at their hands. 

Trio No.4 was originally composed as a Clarinet Trio but in 1798 Beethoven published the Piano Trio version heard here.  The performance is so good that one forgets the original scoring.  In the central adagio the cello comes into its own, with Myung-Wha Chung rising ably to the occasion. 

Trio No.7, the ‘Archduke’ is, of course, the best known of all these works and it is for this that most will probably purchase the set.  The booklet suggests “Olympian calm and quizzical humour” as the identifying qualities of this work, a description which is very apt to the Chung Trio’s performance.  Of the many versions which I have heard over the years, this comes very close to being ideal, though I find it hard to say exactly why.  Perhaps the reviewer who suggested that the Chungs’ approach matched the deep reverence of Beethoven’s dedication to Archduke Rudolph came closest to the answer, but that is not to say that the performers sound pompous: this is the ‘Archduke’ not the ‘Emperor’.  The booklet notes suggest that the first movement evokes Wordsworthian “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”, a most apt observation, in that Beethoven and Wordsworth – near-contemporaries, though Wordsworth’s best period had passed when Beethoven wrote this trio in 1811 – often challenge our ability to define exactly what aspects of their work appeal to us. 

Anyone who buys this set for the ‘Archduke’ alone will have obtained what, many years ago, as impecunious undergraduates, my friends and I dubbed ‘GVforM’ – good value for money – and three other fine performances to boot.  In those days the Ace of Clubs mono reissues of Münchinger’s Brandenburgs and Four Seasons, soon followed by Supraphon (in stereo, albeit with noisy surfaces) and Saga (even cheaper and with even worse surfaces) seemed excellent bargains.  We could not have imagined then a bargain such as the present issue: two CDs, with excellent performances and good, clear but not too forward recording, for about a quarter of the cost in present-day terms of one Ace of Clubs LP.  If you want a more complete set of the Beethoven Piano Trios, the other Gemini sets will meet your needs.  Otherwise the Florestan Trio on three Hyperion CDs perform all the Piano Trios and variations and come highly recommended.  (CDA67327, CDA67369, CDA67393 and CDA67466)  I cannot imagine any other reason why you should not go out and buy this set. 

The notes in the booklet are brief but informative.  They appear to have been written specially for this CD, except that they seem to assume that the two named works are “placed next to each other” on the same disc.  Though less extensive than Naxos provides in this price-range, they are much better than European-sourced Eloquence CDs, which are usually innocent of any notes.  Australian Eloquence at least offer some notes, though their recent reissue of Handel Italian Cantatas with Emma Kirkby/AAM/Christopher Hogwood, an otherwise wonderful bargain on 476 7468, contained full track details but no texts.  Generously Naxos offer all their booklet notes on their website.  (For Beethoven start with http://www.naxos.com/composerinfo/79.htm and navigate from there.) 

My copy arrived with a broken hinge and a crack in the front of the case.  Perhaps all companies should follow the increasing trend towards laminated gatefold sleeves with plastic inserts for 2- and 3-CD sets, which seem less susceptible to such damage.

Brian Wilson

 

 

 

 


 


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