It is a testament to the size and quality of Hyperion's back
catalogue that the company can run two reissue imprints simultaneously:
Helios and Dyad. The latter, as its name suggests, offers two-disc
box sets, and the deal is two discs for the price of one. Given
that Hyperion discs have always been at the more expensive end
of the market, or rather that full-price means exactly that
from the company, we are still not talking about incredible
bargains here, but an opportunity to hear some of the great
recordings from the label's past is always welcome.
Beethoven's Complete String Trios comprise three opuses, the
Trio Op.3, the Serenade Op.8 and the set of three Trios Op.9.
All were written in Beethoven's early years in Vienna, but none
are conservative or predictable. Beethoven was writing for some
skilled performers, especially in the Op.9 set, and even though
they were all published at the time, he seems to have had little
regard for the conservative tastes of Viennese audiences, or
for the amateur performance market. All of the hallmarks of
the composer's later greatness are here: the traditional forms
extended almost to the point of absurdity, the tangential key
relationships, the virtuoso instrumental writing that always
manages to keep at least one foot on the ground. And there is
a lightness of touch that may or may not be a result of the
composer's studies with Haydn. You couldn't mistake these works
for Haydn though, and while they are recognisably 18th
century they are also clearly looking forward to the stylistic
and technical innovations of the 19th.
Having said that, there is a significant difference between
the quality of the works on the first disc to those on the second.
The latter is devoted to the Op.9 set, and these three works
have a sophistication and maturity that clearly sets them apart
from both the Op.3 Trio and the Op.8 Serenade. Interestingly
they are not any longer than their predecessors, nor is the
thematic density any greater. But the drama in these works,
the profundity of there slow movements and monumentality of
their finales all put in them in a different league.
The performances too are superior on this second disc. The first
disc is also well played, but there seems to be a much greater
unity of intent between the players on the second. All the players
are technically proficient, although the viola sometimes lags
a little behind the violin in terms of dexterity on the first
disc. No such complaints on the second though, were only the
timbre of the different instruments separates them.
The recording quality is good, with the ensemble sounding clear
and crisp throughout. Some may complain about a lack of atmosphere,
such is the clarity of the sound, but you can't have it both
ways. The violin can sometimes sound brittle and icy in the
top register, but I suspect this is a product of the audio.
The cello, on the other hand, sounds wonderful throughout. She
has a real richness in the lower register and a valuable clarity
at the top that really separates the voices in the more closely-voiced
This is an excellent Beethoven recording, but the second disc
of the set is clearly superior, both in terms of the quality
of the music and of the performance. And good as the first disc
is, the disparity between them does somewhat compromise the
logic of the reissue. If we were offered just the Op.9 Trios
at the same price, we would not be losing out very much by not
hearing the Op.3 or Op.8 works. Still, the word 'complete' in
the title is bound to appeal to collectors. I just wonder how
often they are going to listen to disc 1.