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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio in B flat major Op.97 ‘Archduke’
Variations on an original theme Op.44
‘Kakadu’ Variations Op.121a

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Trio in E flat major Op.100
Sonatensatz in B flat major

The Castle Trio:-
Lambert Orkis fortepiano
Marilyn McDonald violin
Kenneth Slowik cello
Recorded July 1989, UK (Beethoven Op. 44); July 1990 UK (Beethoven Trio & Op.121a); March 1991, USA (Schubert Trio & Sonatensatz)
VIRGIN VERITAS 7243 5 62007 2 2 [CD1 74:13; CD2 57:56] Midprice


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The Archduke Trio and Schubert’s E flat Trio make a good coupling but, substantial masterpieces that they are, their length precludes a single CD. Virgin’s solution is to produce a double disc set that includes lesser known works by the composers that are of interest and provide enjoyable listening.

If anyone needed help in coming to terms with period instrument chamber music performance, particularly the sound of the fortepiano, then this disc would be high on my list of recommended listening. The American Castle Trio uses "period" instruments that were, strictly speaking, not contemporary in respect of manufacture. Marilyn McDonald’s Guarneri was made, coincidentally, exactly one hundred years before Beethoven’s birth and Kenneth Slowik’s Testore a century before the composition of the Archduke. The fortepiano was made in 1984, a reproduction of a Graf instrument dating from the later part of Beethoven and Schubert’s lives. They sound wonderful.

The Castle Trio have taken a view of how the music might have been played and achieve an astonishing unity of style in realising it. The strings, played with reduced vibrato, match the clean percussive sound of the fortepiano so not only is there clarity of texture but excitement that derives from a sense of clean attack at accents and double forte passages. But Lambert Orkis still manages to make his instrument sing in solo keyboard passages. It was in this context that I nearly had serious misgivings – at the very start of the Archduke Trio which plunges straight into the main tune for keyboard, Orkis indulges a hint of vibrato damaging the required sense of forward momentum. This momentum is needed to offset the chops and changes that are later built into the music. It is a frequent tendency of Beethoven in his first movements to falter and probe. It is his way of creating an impression of building the structure before our ears. However it does pose problems of interpretation. As luck would have it, the second subject is also for solo keyboard and Orkis does it again. Now Orkis is a superb player and I do not want to make too much of this, but as the distinguished chief accompanist to Ann Sophie Mutter, it will not be the first time that he has been held to account for this sort of thing. The slight holding up of momentum has, for example, sometimes been the only critical comment on otherwise fine Mutter/Orkis performances of the Beethoven violin sonatas.

It is this that contributes to my feeling that the performance of at least the first movement of the Archduke does not quite have that sense of overall progression and structural stability that the music demands. I do feel those qualities are there with EMI’s recording of Ashkenazy, Perlman and Harrell from nearly twenty years ago – one of those good old fashioned modern performances - if you see what I mean.

The Castle Trio does provide passages of great delight though. The building of the climax at the end of the exposition in the Archduke is hugely exciting and its particular sound makes the scherzo really bounce, particularly in the pounding bits. In the last movement of the Schubert trio, where the fortepiano has rapidly repeating notes, Orkis is able to make the hammers spring in a way not possible on a Steinway.

The playing provides a kind of shining, clear beauty in the trio slow movements and also in the lovely slow sections in the two Beethoven variation sets. However, if you want spiritual depths plumbed you may be disappointed and in the famous slow movement of the Schubert Trio there was, I felt, an absence of that peculiar mix of pathos and "misterioso".

Nevertheless, this is a fine double disc set of performances from just over ten years ago providing a rich mix of pieces (although the Schubert Sonatensatz is perhaps of more interest than intrinsic value, being a work written in the year the composer’s voice broke). Not only does the Castle Trio make lovely sounds, it is superbly recorded. There is a blend of open ambience, punch and detail which never tires the ear.

John Leeman


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