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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio in E-flat major Op. 1 No. 1 (1793/94) [29:19]
Piano Trio in C minor Op. 1 No. 3 (1793/94) [30:10]
Piano Trio in B-flat major Op. 11 (1798) [20:19]
Van Baerle Trio (Hannes Minnaar (piano), Maria Milstein (violin), Gideon den Herder (violoncello))
rec. 2017, MCO-1 Hilversum, the Netherlands
Reviewed in stereo

There are some recordings that, from the outset, seem to settle you into a nice feeling that all will be well with the world, at least for the duration of the programme, and this is one such. Beethoven’s youthful high spirits and the influence of Haydn’s teaching shine through brightly in the Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 1, and the Van Baerle Trio responds to this score with a lightness of touch and transparency of sound that you could listen to all day.

We came across pianist Hannes Minnaar in his very fine recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos (review), also on Challenge Classics. Then it was a particular kind of tuning that tweaked the piano sound into something a little bit different, but with these trios we are treated to an entirely new instrument built in 2017 by Chris Maene. Like Barenboim’s ‘new piano’ (review) this combines historical design with modern technology, placing the strings in a straight line rather than having them cross over each other as has become the convention today. This sounds very fine indeed, perhaps without the more audible changes in colour between registers with the Barenboim instrument, but with a feeling of utter refinement over the entire range – full in the lower tones, and with a mellifluous upper register that carries melodies and rhythmic weight with equal panache.

There is plenty of wit and grace in these pieces, and you can hear these three musicians delighting in every moment. Beethoven’s virtuoso piano writing suits Minnaar’s digital dexterity to the ground, and even in the Presto finale of Op. 1 No. 1 there is no glossing over the musical shapes in all of those runs and scales. Op. 1 No. 3 with its minor-key gravitas gives a more substantial impression than No. 1, but the smiles and sideways glances are still present not far beneath the serious work, and the surprises in the finale come up sounding truly new and fresh. The Piano Trio Op. 11 with its reference to a comic opera by Joseph Wiegl in its third movement is superb, and in my view the Van Baerle Trio never puts a foot wrong in any of these works, pacing both fast and slow allowing the music to develop and breathe with a sense of balance and ease as well as with drama and excitement, all aided by a fabulous SACD sound that puts us up close and personal with the musicians.

There are of course many good recordings of these trios around. You can’t get around the sheer musicality of the Beaux Arts Trio’s two versions on Philips, which tend to be a broader and more expressively searching than the Van Baerle Trio. Barenboim, Zukerman and Du Pre’s EMI/Warner recording from the 1970s (review) has a romantic warmth which still appeals today, and the The Florestan Trio on Hyperion remains a top choice (review). Your mood will dictate which you might prefer at any particular moment, but if you want it lifted by sparkling performances of some of Beethoven’s sunniest music then this is the place to be. I for one plan to be first in line for volume 2.

Dominy Clements

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