Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Music for Piano Trio
The Florestan Trio
rec. 2002-04, Henry Wood Hall, London.
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download.
[4 CDs: 251:45]

Complete Piano Trios

Trio Wanderer
rec. 2010-11, Teldex Studio, Berlin.
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902100.3 [4 CDs: 245:09]

These two trios – the French Wanderer and the much-missed British Florestan - have been highly acclaimed for their recordings of the piano trio repertoire. I don’t recall seeing any significant negative comments about the Wanderers anywhere, though undoubtedly there are, music criticism being the subjective game it is. I have seen a few harsh things written about the Florestans in one American magazine, but little else that hasn’t been positive. I was, therefore, surprised to find, when preparing the Beethoven section of my piano trio survey, that neither set had been reviewed here, save for one volume of the Florestan’s.

The term “Complete” in relation to Beethoven’s output of piano trios is a somewhat problematic one, as a number of fragments and rearrangements have turned up over the years. For example, the three works on a recording by the Beethoven Project Trio do not appear on either of these sets. The Florestan Trio do include an extra Allegretto (Hess 48) to the Wanderer’s. Let’s not quibble any further about titles and completeness or the lack thereof.

Let me start by saying that if you are in the market for a “complete” set of the Beethoven trios on modern instruments, you would be delighted with either of these. Without having heard all the competition, I’m fairly confident that there are no better options on the market. They certainly put my first Beethoven trio set – Ashkenazy, Perlman and Harrell on EMI – in the shade. It should be said that both are at the polished end of the Beethoven spectrum; the hallmark of the Florestan Trio has always been its poise. If you prefer your Ludwig to have some rough edges and greater extremes, then you might have to look elsewhere.

One of the reasons for doing a comparative review such as this is to propose the better/best option. The choice is perhaps easier than I thought it might be: the clear winner is the Florestan Trio. There is a degree of reserve in the Trio Wanderer style that seemed perfect in their recent Arensky/Tchaikovsky release, but which takes something away from Beethoven. I find myself in total agreement with Stephen Vasta in his review the Florestan’s Volume 4: “it's difficult adequately to describe the essential rightness of their performances”. The piano trio is not the medium for showing off, it is about balance and precision, but this is still Beethoven, so we also need passion. Somehow, the Florestan Trio manage this juggling act better than any other.

In doing the comparison, chopping and changing between two sets, there have been a number of occasions when I was doing something else, only to be drawn back to the music by something really impressive. Without exception, it has been the Florestans who were playing.

The opening minutes of the “Archduke” trio are among the most glorious Beethoven wrote, and here the Florestans take my breath away; the almost bell-like quality produced by Susan Tomes at the piano is heavenly. I listened to the star trio of Barenboim, Zukerman and du Pré begin the same work, and their preference for heavier accentuation left me cold. While on the subject of the Archduke, you will notice from the timings at the end of the review that the Florestan Trio’s version is almost five minutes longer than Trio Wanderer. This is almost entirely due to the second movement scherzo, and is accounted for a repeat taken by the Florestans and not the Wanderers.

This is not to say that I think everything that the Florestans do is perfect. There were times, especially in the some of the presto finales, where I would have liked the fs and ffs to have been more accentuated. However, the same comment could equally be made about the Wanderers.

One aspect of the Wanderer’s playing that I didn’t warm to was the tone produced by the violin of Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, particularly in fast or loud passages, where it became harsh. Listening to Anthony Marwood playing the exact same sections was distinctly better.

The recorded sound of the Wanderer set is more immediate, with each instrument being given equal prominence. In the case of the cello, it has probably been slightly enhanced compared to the sound in a live performance. The Hyperion recording is more diffuse, and the cello does get pushed into the background at times.

Buying a 4 CD set is a substantial purchase, but fortunately neither is full price. The Florestan set is significantly cheaper: £21 for the CDs on Amazon UK or downloaded from Hyperion, compared to £26 for the CDs and £22 downloaded from eClassical for the Wanderer. The Hyperion discs are still available as single volumes, but unless you already have three of the four CDs (or two of the downloads), it is cheaper to buy this full set and give the other ones away.  If you do feel inclined to purchase just one Florestan physical CD, don't buy it at Amazon UK, unless you want to pay more than £14!  Hyperion itself sells them for £10.50.

Listening intensively for the last few days to the Beethoven trios reminded me, if it was necessary, how great much of this music is, and also how sad it is that the Florestan Trio is no longer active.

David Barker

Reviews of The Florestan Trio on Musicweb International
Beethoven v4
Haydn v1
Mendelssohn (Recording of the Month)
Mozart v1
Mozart v2
Saint-Saëns review review (Recording of the Month)
Shostakovich (Recording of the Month)
Smetana, Martinu & Eben

Reviews of Trio Wanderer on Musicweb International
Fauré and Pierné trios
Martinu concerto for piano trio
Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps
Saint-Saëns trios
Shostakovich & Copland trios
Tchaikovsky & Arensky trios

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