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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Trio in B flat major for clarinet, cello and piano, Op. 11 (1797-98) [20:41]
Quintet in E flat major for piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, Op. 16 (1796) [25:22]
Serenade in D major for flute, violin and viola, Op. 25 (1800-01) [24:46]
The Gaudier Ensemble: (Marieke Blankestijn, violin; Iris Juda, viola; Christoph Marks, cello; Jaime Martin, flute; Douglas Boyd, oboe; Richard Hosford, clarinet; Robin O:Neill, bassoon; Jonathan Williams, French horn; Susan Tomes, piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Trinity Church Square, London, England, 19-21 May 2005. DDD
HYPERION CDA67526 [71:07]
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Experience has demonstrated to me that any new recording from the Gaudier Ensemble is cause for rejoicing. The success of their Hyperion versions of the Beethoven Septet, Op. 20 and Sextet, Op.81b from 1991 on CDA66513 and the Schubert Octet, D.803 from 2001 on CDA67339 bear testament to that belief. The present enjoyable release is not in same class as those two issues, yet, the Gaudier provide a performance of discernment and character. They allow the music to unfold in a controlled unforced manner. However, I required a higher level of vitality in the playing and the speeds generally feel on the conservative side.

Quintet in E flat major for piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, Op. 16 (1796)

Beethoven’s score for Piano and Wind Quintet was probably composed in Berlin in 1796 and first heard at a concert in Vienna in April 1797. While Beethoven’s essentially genial, urbane music owes a considerable debt to Mozart in general and his Piano and Wind Quintet, K. 452 in particular, Beethoven’s voice and methods remain his own. Mozart had subtly interwoven the piano with the wind quartet, whilst Beethoven, working on a more expansive scale, characteristically sets them in opposition, so that the outer movements at times resemble a chamber concerto for piano and wind. Typical of the whole Quintet is the way the suave cantabile themes of the Allegro ma non troppo are first announced by the piano alone and then taken up by the wind, with the clarinet very much primus inter pares. The central movement Andante cantabile is a simple Rondo design in which increasingly florid appearances of the main theme - introduced, as usual, by the piano alone - enfold two contrasting episodes. For his Finale marked Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo Beethoven writes a memorable and bouncy ‘hunting’ Rondo in 6/8 time. There are brief hints of Beethovenian truculence in the central episode, but otherwise the mood is one of unbridled exuberance, right down to the coda, whose teasing play with the theme recalls not so much Mozart as Beethoven’s former teacher Haydn. This is accomplished playing that combines warmth and finesse although a touch more vigour in the outer movements would have been preferred.

Trio in B flat major for clarinet, cello and piano, Op. 11 (1797-98)

Beethoven composed his refined and elegant B flat major Clarinet Trio, Op. 11 in 1797–8 for what was then a rare combination of clarinet, cello and piano. The three movement score was also designed to be played, with minimal adjustment, by a conventional piano trio. Except for one place near the end of the Allegro con brio opening movement the clarinet part never descends beyond the violin’s compass. Compared with the quasi-symphonic four-movement Op. 1 Trios, composed a few years earlier, the Clarinet Trio has been aptly described as a "work of elegant relaxation." However, when the work was initially published the critic of the influential publication ‘Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung’ found the Clarinet Trio "difficult" and reproached Beethoven for writing "unnaturally".

The opening movement is a broadly planned Allegro con brio full of typically Beethovenian wit and ingenuity, with the piano and clarinet alternately colluding and jousting for prominence. The beautiful theme of the central movement Adagio gives the cello its first moment of real glory in the work. It was probably the Viennese clarinettist Joseph Bähr, for whom Beethoven wrote the Clarinet Trio, who suggested the theme for the variation finale, using ‘Pria ch’io I’impregno a favourite number from Joseph Weigl’s new comic opera ‘L’amor marinaro (‘Love at Sea’) premiered in Vienna in October 1797. According to his pupil Carl Czerny, Beethoven often contemplated writing an alternative finale, presumably because he found the original too lightweight. In fact, these nine variations are among the most inventive in early Beethoven. The captivating playing is consistently fresh and spontaneous; even if the speeds feel rather sluggish.

Serenade in D major for flute, violin and viola, Op. 25 (1800-01)

Beethoven’s D major Serenade, Op 25, for the airy combination of flute, violin and viola was probably written in 1800–01. Written primarily for the profitable domestic market - since the days of Frederick the Great the flute was the instrument par excellence of the gentleman amateur - the Serenade, like the Septet, is a delightful late offshoot of the eighteenth-century divertimento tradition.

Like Mozart in his Salzburg Serenades, Beethoven begins with a march-like Allegro, here titled ‘Entrata’. In the opening fanfare the flute seems to be masquerading as a horn; the strings quickly join in the fun, and the whole movement is full of delicate, quick-fire give-and-take between the three instruments. Following tradition, the second movement is a galant minuet with two trios, the first for violin and viola alone, the second a skittering flute solo with a mandolin-style accompaniment. A mock splenetic Allegro molto movement in D minor leads to the centrepiece of the Serenade, a set of variations on a theme announced by the strings in double-stopping to create a quartet texture. The three variations spotlight each of the instruments in succession, first the flute - who turns the meditative theme into a frolic - then the violin (with skipping triplets) and finally the viola. After a frisky Scherzo with a gliding, contrapuntal D minor trio, a brief Adagio acts as an introduction to the final Rondo, a faintly rustic contredanse with a main theme characterized by piquant ‘Scotch Snap’ rhythms. The playing has a secure lightness. The Gaudiers provide a rapt account of the Andante con variazione and in the impressively performed final movement they unearth a level of vivacity that they successfully blend with character.

The English-based Gaudier Ensemble are a first class group of players that possess such a high level of ensemble that it is impossible to single out any individual performer for special praise. These three scores are amongst the least recorded of Beethoven’s chamber works and the competition in the catalogues is feeble rather than fierce. In the Clarinet Trio I am aware of two recordings from the Nash Ensemble; one on CRD 3345 and the other on Virgin 5 614409-2. The best known and most acclaimed account of the Piano and Wind Quintet is performed by Walter Gieseking and members of the Philharmonia Wind Ensemble from 1955 on Testament (mono) SBT 1091. A quick check has revealed a dearth of recordings of the Beethoven D major Serenade. Many years ago I owned a vinyl version from the Grumiaux Trio with flautist Maxence Larrieu on Philips 6503 108. I also know of a 1990 version from Galway, Swensen and Neubauer on RCA Victor Red Seal RD 87756.

The Hyperion engineers have provided decent sound quality and the liner notes by Richard Wigmore are interesting and highly informative.

Michael Cookson


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