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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
Piano Trio No. 5 in D major, Op. 70, No. 1 ‘Ghost Trio’ [27:48]; Piano Trio No. 6 in E flat major, Op. 70, No. 2 [30:06]; Variations in E flat major, Op. 44 [13:49]
Xyrion Trio (Nina Tichman, piano; Ida Bieler, violin; Maria Kliegel, cello)
rec. Clara Wieck Auditorium, Sandhausen, Germany, 20-22 October, 2004
NAXOS 8.557723

The three ladies constituting the Xyrion Trio are each well-known artists in their own right. This is especially true of Maria Kliegel who is supposed to be the most recorded cellist in history. As a trio they made their début in 2001 and as far as I know this is their first recording.

I hope that there will eventually be a complete "cycle" of the Beethoven trios – the quotation marks implying that the master’s works for piano trio do not really form a cycle in the way the symphonies and the piano sonatas do, showing a consistent development. There are three works from his youth, his opus 1, and then a jump to these mature compositions, written when he already had the first six symphonies behind him, and then a further jump to the masterpiece, the "Archduke". Besides those there are a number of minor works, one of them appearing here as a kind of extended encore.

There is keen competition in this field, many permanent ensembles and ad hoc trios having recorded some or all of this music in the distant and near past. I have always had a soft spot for the 35-year-old DG set by Wilhelm Kempff, Henryk Szeryng and Pierre Fournier – a star constellation if ever there was one. These legendary individualists, who as far as I know rarely played together, managed to adjust to each other’s temperaments and delivered deeply satisfying readings, well-balanced and still spontaneous sounding. I returned to them before setting my teeth into this new recording, and they seemed as close to the ideal as one could imagine. However playing the Xyrion recording immediately afterwards I was just as impressed.

The more well-known of the two main works here, the "Ghost Trio", is the more dramatic piece with the outer movements (there are only three) marked Allegro vivace e con brio and Presto respectively. "Vivace e con brio" it certainly is, almost approaching "presto", in the first movement. Kempff – Szeryng – Fournier are no dawdlers either but by comparison they sound a little heavier. The final "presto" shows the same differences: Xyrion are fast and eager, even forceful, making the most of the drama, while Kempff & Co. are gentler, considerably slower, more reflective. I can’t honestly say that I prefer one version to the other. It’s more a matter of two different approaches: three still young ladies vs. three elderly gentlemen may give an idea of what I mean.

The eerie atmosphere of the middle movement, marked Largo assai ed espressivo, is well caught by both groups. The Xyrion is a mite slower in their basic tempo, at least according to timings, but in effect the difference is negligible. This utterly original movement, very much pointing forward to the romantic era, requires a well knit ensemble. That is what it gets from both camps, but while the Xyrion are the more overtly dramatic in the outer movements, Kempff and his friends seem to have a more natural relation to the ghosts in this movement. As I have already implied: it’s not a matter of swings and roundabouts, it’s rather two different interpretations, equally valid.

This also goes for the E flat major trio, which undeservedly has been put in the shade of its more outgoing companion piece. A work that begins with a slow introduction – marked Poco sostenuto – followed by an Allegro that is qualified by ma non troppo, is bound to be less immediately approachable. However once you have got into this composition it grows on you and in the end reveals more depths. This is more noticeable in the second movement, which begins rather gently but there is also darker weft woven into the fabric. The third movement is, in the hands of the Xyrion, more romantically dramatic as opposed to the gentlemen’s more balanced classicism. The gradually heightened intensity through the composition reaches its climax in the final Allegro and here I can’t find a clear winner either, but for once I have to refer to an outsider: the London-based Kungsbacka Piano Trio, which I heard in concert less than a year ago in this particular work. They played this Finale at white heat, without safety net, with an intensity I have never experienced – live or on records. It is only to be hoped that they will be asked to set it down on disc.

The Variations Op. 44, also in E flat major, thought to have been sketched in 1792, is a slighter piece, but highly entertaining, giving the three players more exposure as soloists. The fourteen variations, most of them very short, are well contrasted. Towards the end, in variation XIII, comes a reminder that life is not just jolly. Then the mood changes and the last, and by far the longest, variation is a rousing finale – but in the middle, after a long pause, the mood from the foregoing variation returns. A good-humoured flourish rounds off the composition.

Individually and as a trio Nina Tichman, Ida Bieler and Maria Kliegel are highly accomplished. My inability to make a clear choice between them and Kempff–Szeryng–Fournier is in itself a recommendation. The recording is ideally balanced, made in the grateful acoustics of the Clara Wieck Auditorium in Sandhausen, a venue that Naxos are using quite frequently at present.

Keith Anderson contributes one of his valuable liner notes and at super budget price nobody needs to hesitate. Buy it and enjoy! I see that my colleague Colin Clarke made it "Bargain of the Month" some time ago. I can’t agree more.

Göran Forsling

see also review by Colin Clarke October Bargain of the month


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