> Beethoven - Complete Piano Trios, Vol.4 [PJL]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Trios, Vol 4
Piano Trio in B flat major, Op 97 ‘Archduke’ (1811) [41.56]
Piano Trio in B flat major, WoO39 (1812) [4.44]
Piano Trio in E flat major, WoO38 (1791) [14.47]
Piano Trio in E flat major, Hess 48 (1784) [3.12]
Trio Parnassus: Wolfgang Schröder (violin), Michael Groß (cello) and Chia Chou (piano)
recorded 21-22 March 2001, Fürstliche Reitbahn, Bad Arolsen DDD
MDG 303 1054-2 [65.17]


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This fourth volume of MDG’s series brings together the alpha and omega of Beethoven’s music for piano trio – the longest and the shortest, the latest and the earliest, the best known and the least known, the greatest and the slightest. You may prefer to have your ‘Archduke’ coupled (more conventionally) with another ‘Ghost’, perhaps, or (more enterprisingly) with its mighty Op 70 counterpart, the E flat, Op 70/2. But this programme affords a fascinating insight into the composer’s stylistic development, and the length and breadth of his genius.

Forgive me if I break with convention and make mention at the outset of MDG’s outstandingly truthful recording, which is exemplary in its presence, clarity, range and spaciousness. Although the microphones are obviously fairly close to the players – we can easily ‘place’ individual musicians; indeed we can almost feel them – the lovely acoustic provides ample depth and ‘distance’. And the piano (it must be said) is beautifully voiced: its sparkling highs are matched by resonantly weighty lows.

Trio Parnassus have nothing to fear from these levels of hi-fidelity: they are a most musical team – a most musical team, and a most musical team. I enjoyed their playing enormously: in particular, the cellist’s fabulous singing tone is matched by a rich and gorgeously full bass voice. Although my disappointments with these performances are several in number, they are almost entirely trivial in nature, and in large part come down to personal preference anyway.

The first movement of the ‘Archduke’ does not drag, as so often happens, mainly because its relaxed cantabile character is (as it ought to be) identified as one of several components, and not the over-arching mood. The group aren’t always in agreement about matters of detail, it seems: the pianist’s slightly mannered rubato into his statement of the second theme, for example, is not echoed in his colleagues’ reply. And I thought their move into the recapitulation rather straight-faced, if not clumsy: admittedly, this isn’t one of Beethoven’s subtlest transitions, but with good (i.e. better) management it can be made into a melting moment.

The Scherzo is laid back but energetic – precisely the qualities the music demands – and the slippery chromatic links are well managed.

Fortunately (but unusually) the slow movement is not slow, in line with every indication that Beethoven gives us. I thought the phrases might be made to ‘breathe’ more, with more finishing at cadence points: but perhaps Beethoven’s gentle undulations should be left to speak for themselves? The variations are nicely characterised, their apparently increasing tempo the better for not starting too slow.

As for the sudden return to a slow tempo and the subsequent meanderings as the door is gradually opened on the finale, I find these a shade literal. This music can be playful, or it can be mysterious, prompting the question "where on earth next…?" Again, it could be said that Trio Parnassus don’t tell you what to think, but rather leave everything out in the open. The comings and goings of the Rondo itself are well captured and manipulated.

WoO39 appears immature, certainly texturally, after Op 97, but it really does postdate the ‘Archduke’. Written for a 10-year-old pupil, the piano part is deliberately ‘easy’, but the simple dialogue of voices is nevertheless a joy to hear.

WoO38 is, by contrast, a very early work from his Bonn years. There are three short movements, all them quick or quickish: perhaps the slow movement is lost? Much of the material is charming, and there are occasional daring modulations and unorthodox gearchanges which tell you that a master-to-be is at the helm.

Hess 48 is nothing more than a short-lived sketch on a dotted rhythmic idea. It comes last on the disc – no grand finale, this! – and I wonder how often we will want to give it our full attention after hearing the masterpiece of nearly 30 years later. I suppose the programming facility on our CD players (I must use it more often…) allows you to do what you want, including rearranging things into chronological sequence. But whatever you do, you get an awful lot of (superficially-) similar-sounding B flat and E flat major here!

Peter J Lawson


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