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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio No.6 in E flat, Op.70/2 (1808) [30:03]
Piano Trio No.7 in B flat, Op.97 Archduke (1811) [37:26]
Isabelle Faust (violin), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Alexander Melnikov (Graff fortepiano)
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, September 2011. DDD.
Reviewed as lossless download from eclassical.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902125 [67:29]

The first piece of Beethoven’s chamber music that I got to know was the Archduke Trio, courtesy of a World Record Club reel-to-reel tape. Though good enough to make me fall in love with the work, that would no longer be my benchmark recording even if it were still available - that would be the Beaux Arts Trio, on a single budget Decca Virtuoso CD with the Ghost Trio, Op.70/1 and the Gassenhauser Trio, Op.11 (4785153) or with the Triple Concerto, with LPO/Haitink, on Philips 4784777 - download only. My other benchmark would be the Florestan Trio with the Kakadu Variations on Hyperion CDA67369 or on a 4-CD set CDS44471/4. I compared these and two recordings of Beethoven Trios on the budget EMI/Warner Gemini label in my DL News 2013/12.
 
As it happens, there’s no need to hark back to earlier versions or to beat about the bush: this new recording joins the others at the top of the tree and is worth buying even if you have one of them because of its unique selling point - the employment of a fortepiano. This means that the keyboard instrument takes its place in the overall sound-picture as naturally as it would have done in Beethoven’s own time. It’s still first among equals - it is, after all, a Piano Trio - and in the best performances it’s never allowed to be too dominant, but I liked the effect of hearing the period instrument.
 
Some fortepianos demand an acquired taste - I’m not a great lover of them in general - but several recent recordings with them have started to win me over. Ronald Brautigam’s series of Mozart piano concertos for BIS have contributed - the latest, sixth volume, Nos. 18 and 22, has just appeared on BIS-SACD-2044 - but this new Harmonia Mundi CD has done even more. In fact all the instruments here are period: the fortepiano is a restored 1828 Graff, the violin a 1704 Strad (‘Sleeping Beauty’) and the cello a Cappa from 1696.
 
It’s not just that ideal balance between the instruments, so faithfully caught by the Harmonia Mundi engineers, which makes this new recording so recommendable. The three performers combine so well that although they aren’t a ‘regular’ trio with a name, they have played together often enough, as in the Faust/Melnikov series of the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas and in Schubert - review - to ensure that this glorious free-wheeling performance is likely to become my listening choice in future, perhaps even in preference to the Beaux Arts and Florestan Trios.
 
Op.70/2 may be less well-known than its companion - perhaps the Countess Erdödy for whom it was composed ranks a little lower than the Archduke Rudolf. It’s also less well-known than its predecessor, Op.70/1, the Ghost, which is often coupled with the Archduke, but it, too, receives a fine performance and recording.
 
I listened to the mp3 and the 24-bit downloads and both are good enough to assure me that the 16-bit CD, which falls between them in quality, will also be very good. Not entirely surprisingly, the ideal balance of the instruments is lost when playing the mp3 version on smaller-scale equipment, but you don’t have to choose between them with the eclassical.com download: mp3 and 16-bit are available for the same price, a competitive $12.15, with 24-bit a little more. Buy either of the lossless versions and you can return at any time to obtain the mp3 for your personal player.
 
If I have to find one small grumble, it arises from the decision of the Harmonia Mundi design department to decapitate the portrait of Archduke Rudolf for the cover shot.
 
I’ve been very sparing recently in nominating Recordings of the Month but this transport of delight certainly constitutes one such.
 
Brian Wilson


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