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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Complete String Trios
String Trio in E-flat, Op.3 (1793?) [40:33]
Serenade (Trio) in D major, Op.8 (1796/7) [28:56]
String Trio in G major, Op.9/1 (1798) [28:34]
String Trio in D major, Op.9/2 (1798) [23:57]
String Trio in c minor, Op.9/3 (1798) [24:09]
Adaskin String Trio (Emlyn Ngai (violin); Steve Larson (viola); Mark Fraser (cello))
rec. 16-18 February, 4-5 June, 21-22 September 2001, Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA. DDD.
[69:38 + 76:35]


Experience Classicsonline

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 emptor. 

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.

Brian Wilson


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