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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 1/1
Piano Trio No. 2 in G major, Op. 1/2
Piano Trio No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 11 Gassenhauertrio
Trio Fontenay
Recorded at Teldec Studio, Berlin, Germany, March 1991 (Op.1 /1), December 1991 (Op.1 /2) and June 1992 (Op.11) DDD
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 2564 60364 2 [73:35]

Beethoven composed eleven numbered trios for the combination of piano, violin and cello. The first three piano trios Opus 1 were published in 1795 and were composed a few years earlier. Contained on this Apex disc, which was originally released on Teldec, are the first two of the Opus 1 set: No.1 in E flat major and No.2 in G major. In addition the piano trio No.4 in B flat major ’Gassenhauertrio’ is included.

The piano trios Nos. 1 in E flat major and 2 in G major are in the four movements, each containing a Scherzo and were fairly early examples of the piano trio form. Beethoven gives fairly equal treatment to each of the instruments, with the cello ceasing to be merely used as mere basso continuo accompaniment, giving notice of the composer’s move from the world of fashionable salon music.

The third and final piano trio on this release is the No.4 in B flat major Op. 11 which dates from 1798. Composed in three movements this work is a good example of how Beethoven was still using the piano trio in a lighter form as opposed to the more serious medium of the string quartet. For example, in this piano trio Beethoven uses in the concluding movement nine variations on a theme from Joseph Weigl’s opera buffa L’amor marinaro (Maritime Love). Consequently the trio is sometimes known as the ’Gassenhauertrio’ meaning popular hit.

The Hamburg-based Trio Fontenay offer pleasing if rather swift performances in all three of these piano trios. However, I feel that they cannot compete with my favoured version of these works from the Beaux Arts Trio in their 5 CD set of the complete piano trios on Philips 468 411-2. As the timings, in three of the movements, were very different between the two sets of performers I made investigations and discovered that the Trio Fontenay have decided to omit the exposition repeats that the Beaux Arts Trio retain.

Overall the Beaux Arts Trio are more convincing with a greater depth to their interpretations, displaying a real sense of music making. In the E flat major trio Beaux Arts perform the Adagio cantabile with a remarkable serenity for which I must single out the marvellous playing of violinist Isidore Cohen. Furthermore, there is a heightened expression for the romantic mood of the lyrical Largo con espressione of the G major trio and they offer more spontaneity and verve in both Scherzo movements.

In the B flat major work the Trio Fontenay play with pace, sensitivity and control without ever matching the Beaux Arts who display that innate facility of insight, offering real grace and feeling in the Adagio. In the charming final movement variations the Beaux Arts have that extra element of lyricism and sense of real engagement, where the playing from master pianist Menahem Pressler is sublime.

The Apex recording, originally published in 1993, has an acceptable sound yet somehow doesn’t have the clarity and detail of the earlier Beaux Arts set. Although the Beaux Arts performances of these trios were recorded back in 1981 there is certainly no sign of their age and the Philips packaging is excellent too. It is a shame that Apex do not find it necessary to provide any information whatsoever about the Trio Fontenay. It would have proved most useful.

Well played performances from the Trio Fontenay but they cannot compete with the top-of-the-range competition from the Beaux Arts Trio who impart far more depth and insight.

Michael Cookson

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