I hadn’t encountered Musica Omnia before. A comparatively
recent label, its featured artists include such luminaries as
Max van Egmond and Jaap Schröder. Peter Watchorn, whose book on
Isolde Ahlgrimm and the Early Music Revival I recently
recommended (see review)
is both a performer for the label and co-producer of these CDs.
Musica Omnia’s publicity material for this set
on their web page is misleading in a number of ways; the description
of the contents there is completely at odds with the actual
CDs. The Thema con variazioni, listed there as a separate
work, is actually the finale of the Serenade, Op.8; the variations
are not separately tracked, as claimed. Worse still, the works
are laid out in a completely different manner from that indicated
and one of the claimed ‘features’ – ‘Extra bonus work: little-known “Eyeglasses” duo for viola and
cello’ – just does not appear on the finished product. Caveat
So how do Musica Omnia’s other claims stack up?
‘Complete music for string trio –
greatest music ever written for the medium.’ Beethoven’s string
trios are early works, usually regarded as experiments in preparation
for the Op.18 and later string quartets. There are very few
composers whose single-figure opus numbers are worth hearing,
but Beethoven is a special case. The Piano Trios, Op.1, are
very much in the Haydn manner and his Op.2 Piano Sonata was
dedicated to Haydn, but the model for the Op.3 String Trio seems
to have been Mozart’s six-movement Divertimento, K563 – a far
from trivial work, despite its title.
Despite the obvious influence of
Haydn and Mozart even in these first three published sets, the
distinctive voice of Beethoven is clearly to be heard. In the
Op.8 Serenade and in the three Op.9 Trios, that voice is even
more clearly audible. In the Op.9 works in particular there
is also a great deal of variety, too – and even some signs,
soon to be yet more manifest in the Op.18 Quartets, of the less
conventional manner usually attributed to his middle-period
and late works.
The notes are probably right to suggest
that Beethoven was side-stepping the issue of writing his first
string quartets, for which his model would again have been Haydn,
though the relations between the two were probably less strained
than is sometimes suggested: his famous outburst that he had
learned more from Salieri than from Haydn is probably more a
reflection on Haydn’s laxity as a teacher than of any real animosity.
The notes here very fairly state the matter: that Haydn appreciated
Beethoven’s Op.1 Piano Trios but, not unreasonably, warned that
the public might not appreciate the c-minor Trio.
If the Op.3, Op.8 and Op.9 works
fail quite to match Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio, that
is only to be expected. Nor do they, in my opinion, quite equal
what Schubert was to produce in this genre. They are, however,
all very much worth hearing.
‘Performed by North America’s leading
specialist ensemble in the string trio repertoire.’ I shouldn’t
wish to get into any arguments about comparative merits in this
way, but the Adaskin Trio certainly deliver some very fine performances
here. If you want to know what I consider the apogee of String
Trios, listen to the Grumiaux Trio in the Mozart Divertimento
(Philips Duo 454 023-2, coupled with the Duos for violin and
viola). To say that the performances here come pretty close
to that level is high praise. I look forward with interest to
their advertised forthcoming release of works by Mozart and
Schubert (MO 0305).
‘Recorded in beautiful warm church
acoustics.’ The Church of the Redeemer at Chestnut Hill, MA,
certainly sounds like an excellent venue. The recording is wide-ranging
and truthful; neither it nor the acoustic ever intruded on my
enjoyment of the performances. Each instrument is well located
but also integrated into the sound-stage as a whole.
‘Extensive booklet notes.’ Eleven
pages (in English only) of helpful notes, written by Robert
Mealy, together with information about the members of the Adaskin
Trio, recording venue, etc., and facsimiles of the title page
of the first edition of the Serenata and of part of the manuscript
score of Op.9/1. For a 2-CD set with an indicated price in the
US of $15.99 (likely to sell for around £14 in the UK), this
is a deluxe booklet for a mid-price issue.
The Op.9 Trios were dedicated to
Count von Browne-Camus with a note which indicates the importance
which Beethoven attached to them as “la meilleure de ses œuvres”.
The opening Adagio introduction to the first movement
of Op.9/1 combines the grandeur of statement which indicates
that this is going to be a serious work with a delicacy of touch
which leads naturally into the Allegro con brio. The
Adaskin Trio perhaps marginally emphasise the seriousness as
the expense of the brio, but that is far better than
trivialising the music; this is, after all, a large-scale movement
lasting over ten minutes. Otherwise they are alive to all the
nuances of the music.
String trios are often performed
by ad hoc ensembles, but it is clear that the Adaskins,
who have been together since the 1980s, are used to playing
as one, though its members sometimes perform in other ensembles.
I was not surprised to discover that the Emerson Quartet are
listed as former mentors.
The Adagio second movement
offers an opportunity for expressive cantabile playing,
very well realised here. Even at this early stage in his career,
however, Beethoven could not resist sometimes breaking up the
line of the music and the Adaskin Trio make us aware of this
feature, without unduly emphasising it. Haydn’s warning to Beethoven
about the possibly adverse reaction to the Op.1 Piano Trios
would have been equally apposite here.
The lightweight Scherzo is
delicately realised by the players. The Presto finale
is taken at a fair pace at beginning and end, but the players
never seem hurried and the phrasing never suffers. They are
equally alert to the needs of the second theme and development.
In less skilful hands the end of the movement might sound perfunctory,
but not so here.
These positive qualities of the performance
of Op.9/1 are equally to be found in the Adaskin Trio’s performances
of the other works here.
You could hardly go
wrong with any of the recordings of the String Trios currently
available. A Kandinsky Trio recording of Op.9 received a moderately
enthusiastic review here on MusicWeb (budget-price Arte Nova 74321
92776 2 – see review).
My colleague KS welcomed the music and the performances, but deprecated
the performers’ habit of taking audible deep breaths. The Op.3
and Op.8 works have appeared on Volume 1 of a planned Naxos set
(8.557895 – see review)
– worth a fiver, but inferior to the Leopold Trio on Hyperion
CDA67253, according to CC. The Leopold Trio version of Op.9, on
CDA67254, is deleted. Due for reissue on Helios, I hope – or perhaps
both discs will be issued as a 2-for-one Dyad.
Otherwise there is a budget-price
2-CD set with the Cummings Trio on Regis RRC2064, well received
on first release on Unicorn-Kanchana and on its reissue; a fiery,
live 2-CD recording from Perlman, Zukerman and Harrell (a superb
bargain now on EMI Gemini 4 76909-2 for around £8.50 in the
UK) and a sensitive account from Mutter, Giuranna and Rostropovich
which has reverted to full price (DG 427 687-2,
2 CDs) though you may still be able to find the odd copy of
the mid-price reissue on 453 757-2, now deleted. Finally, there
is a 2-CD DG mid-price set with the Trio Italiano d’Archi on
459 466-2. All of these have been well received in one quarter
or another. Whichever you choose, if you do not know these String
Trios, you are likely to be pleasantly surprised at the quality
of the music.
I see no reason, however,
to look further than this well performed and well recorded Musica
Omnia set. One caveat: prospective purchasers are warned that,
unlike most 2-CD slimline cases, this one flips from right to
left to reveal CD2 – trying to open from left to right, as I automatically
did at first, is likely to do damage to the tray or case.