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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1826)
Piano Trio #3 in c, Op 1 #3 (1795) [30.11]
Piano Trio #6 in Bb, "Archduke," Op 97 (1811) [40.54]
Kempf Trio: Freddy Kempf, piano; Pierre Bensaid, violin; Alexander Chaushian, cello.
Steinway D Piano; technician, Kenneth Eneberg.
rec. former Academy of Music, Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm, Sweden, April 2003.
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français.
Recorded in DSD, SACD 2.0 and 5.0. CD tracks 2.0 stereo.
Hybrid SACD playable in stereo on cd players

BIS SACD-1172 [71.28]

Comparison Recordings

Eugene Istomin, p; Isaac Stern, v; Leonard Rose, vc. [ADD] Sony SM4K 46738
Trio Op 1 #3, Stuttgart Piano Trio Naxos 8.550947

I put on my freshly washed I HATE BEETHOVEN tee shirt and sat down to listen to this disk. I managed to sneer all the way through the Opus 1. True, it was an interesting piece of work, the stamp of the man’s unique personality informing every phrase. But all I could think of was papa Haydn shaking his head and marking it down as a C+. Awkward and graceless, he probably thought, and not a single joke. And what of works by other composers more worthy of being played, such as (you’ve been waiting for this) the Tovey String Trio in b, Op 1?

I even kept sneering a little into the first movement of the "Archduke," remembering the friend who once told me his nine year old son’s "favourite song" was the Archduke Trio. Nine years old*. About right, I said. Then, ho-hum, another Beethoven scherzo. Then these artists began playing the slow movement, and the music reached out and grabbed me by the throat and threw me to the floor.

When the last of the music died away there was the ghost of Beethoven, looking down at me. He read my tee shirt and chuckled. "Got to you, did I?" he said in his best Yoda voice. The sound of his laughter echoed after him as he walked away through the wall.

Oh, all right, so I had that coming.

Let me explain: This variations movement is based on the old baroque aria and doubles form. If you want to hear it done really well, listen to Bach’s BWV 989, "Aria Variata alla maniera italiana." You’ll have trouble doing that because it’s not one of Bach’s most popular works and there aren’t many recordings. The Handel Eb Variations may be closer to hand, but, unless they’re very creatively embellished, they’re no better than, maybe not even as good as, Beethoven’s usual work. Considered strictly as a composition, Beethoven couldn’t handle this form at all. His "doubles" are clumsy and obvious. If you or I turned in work like this today in a conservatory we’d get no better than C minus. (Go ahead, try it, some enterprising music student. See what it gets you.) But these performers find music here that no one else does. One doesn’t expect to hear playing of this quality, of this intensity, in these modern times, nay one doesn’t expect to hear playing like this after about 1937, the end of the golden age of great chamber playing.

The Stern/Istomin/Rose trio have impeccable chamber music credentials singly and collectively. Violinist Stern has a virtual cult following, Istomin was among other things a personal friend of Casals and his family, and Rose, in an age that contained Casals, produced a stunning recording of the Grieg Cello Sonata which is still a classic, even in the age of Starker, Harrell and Ma. In both trios they achieve a fine adolescent swagger in the brighter movements, but run off the Archduke variations very clearly, exposing all the facile shallowness one can find there. The Stuttgart Piano Trio play dynamically and with authority, dignity, even solemnity, an approach which works quite well, although they hardly begin to approach the intensity of the Kempf recording.

But Freddy Kempf and his friends look for something better and they find it, and if they can convince me — and they do — they could convince a rock. This is the finest Beethoven chamber playing I’ve ever heard, certainly the finest "Archduke" and even more important, the finest Op 1, #3, with whose variations movement they also work miracles. They have taken this music, a step below the top, and taken it over the top by sheer artistry, stunning musicianship, and personal conviction.

The genius of Bach, Mozart and Brahms is expressed in the perfect balance of their styles. Schubert, Ravel, and Debussy express their genius through understatement. With Telemann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Beethoven, genius expresses itself through overstatement.** Even in this early Opus 1 trio one hears Beethoven’s imitation of his models and his almost angry impatience at that imitation even as he realises why he must do it. In Beethoven’s middle period some of his overstatements were experimental and not fully successful, but this quality was crystallised perfectly in his introduction of the chorus into the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, a gesture that was not fully appreciated for 150 years. It was in his late works that the sense of mastery was finally coupled with impetuosity to produce many, but not all, of his masterpieces, such as this work from 1811.

These SACD surround tracks reproduce the sound with overwhelming immediacy.

Was it on a promontory overlooking the sea at sunset, or a rock ledge in a trackless desert at moonrise? My eyes, filled with tears could not see clearly and I cannot recall. I set the faggots alight and as the fire rose up, I threw my I HATE BEETHOVEN tee shirt upon the flames and watched as the letters one by one darkened, curled, and disappeared. As the smoke rose up to heaven a hole in the sky appeared and I could hear his laughter again. "Really got to you, did I? You should hear what I’m writing now. Even Bach likes some of it!"

*The young Donald Francis Tovey liked it too because it is clearly one of the models for the first movement of his Cello Sonata Op. 4, perhaps his finest single work.

**As with any generalisation like this, the interest lies largely in the exceptions, such as Liszt’s astonishingly understated late piano music, some of his finest. However with Liszt there was something of a flamboyant gesture even about his understatement.

Paul Shoemaker

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