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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Trios – Volume 3
Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70 No. 1 (1808) [28:02]
Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70 No. 2 (1808) [32:22]
Variations in E-flat major, op. 44 (c.1792) [11:53]
Van Baerle Trio
rec. 2017/18, MCO-1 Hilversum, the Netherlands.
Hybrid multichannel SACD/CD reviewed in SACD stereo.

The Van Baerle Trio reaches volume three of their set of Beethoven’s complete Piano Trios and other works. I’ve particularly enjoyed the first two (review and review), though David Barker was less complimentary in his evaluation of volume 1 (review). There is indeed no shortage of recordings of these works, and it’s always going to be tricky to stand out from the crowd. The Van Baerle Trio has youthful verve as well as refined musicianship on its side, and those of us keen on SACD sound will also enjoy the detail and feeling of involvement in the recording, which is excellent as usual from this source. The piano used here is also worthy of note – an instrument from 2017 by Chris Maene which, as with that demonstrated by Daniel Barenboim, has its strings running in parallel rather than crossed, as is the more usual convention today.

As Marten Noorduin points out in his booklet note, 1808 was a remarkably productive year for Beethoven, including the completion of both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies premièred in a notoriously long concert on 22nd December of that year which included the Fourth Piano Concerto and the specially composed Choral Fantasy. The Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70 No. 1 was apparently nicknamed ‘Ghost’ as the result of a comment by Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny, and this refers to the enigmatic character of the second movement. The Van Baerle Trio doesn’t lean too much on its effects in the opening, the strings’ relatively vibrato-free sound being at the same time expressive and coolly aloof. This is similar in approach is the Swiss Piano Trio (review), which gains an added layer of haunting sound through the rich acoustic in which the recording has been made. The Swiss players are a little more heart-on-sleeve here as they are in the drama of the first movement, both ensembles being a little broader than some in terms of tempo, allowing time for inner detail and expressive lyricism as well as those dramatic contrasts introduced by the opening statement. The final Presto sees Beethoven teasing us a little with some stop-start theatricals before the bustling passagework really takes off.

Several trios put the Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70 No. 2 first in their programme, and this is indeed a lighter work on first inspection, the ghost of Mozart and the fatherly – and still very much alive at the time – Haydn looking over Beethoven’s stylistic shoulder. There is however plenty going on here, with Beethoven’s characteristic disruptions making for fascinating listening as ever, though he was clearly more in a mood to charm his audience than with No.1. The Van Baerle players are warm and confiding in this work, bringing out Beethoven’s wit and good humour as well as relishing his more daring harmonic excursions. Timings are similar here to those of the Gould Piano Trio (review), who again appear in a more resonant acoustic. Where I prefer the Van Baerle Trio is in the songlike Schubertian Allegretto ma non troppo third movement, in which the Gould Trio sounds a bit rushed in comparison.

The Variations in E-flat major, op. 44 make for a sweetly joyous conclusion to the programme, the Van Baerle Trio responding to Beethoven’s invocation of Mozart’s transparent textures and lightness of touch with both the harmonic and melodic variations on a theme now known to be by Dittersdorf, though older editions called it ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ as the tune was unnamed.

Comparisons abound in this repertoire, and my eye was caught by Colin Clarke’s positive reaction to the Xyrion Trio’s recordings of the Op. 70 trios on the Naxos label (review). Xyrion is more up-front and hard-hitting in the first movement of Op. 70 No. 1, bringing it in around 30 seconds quicker than Van Baerle. The latter players are by no means sluggish however, but they bring out the inner lyricism as well as the excitement in this movement. The excitement of the Xyrion Trio in the outer movements can become tiring in this work, though their middle movement is nicely poised. Greater extremes of expression are indeed to be found elsewhere, such as from the Beaux Arts Trio in their vintage Philips account of Op. 70 No. 1, but with the Van Baerle Trio we’re hearing a younger generation in which it is the unmannered character of the music rather than that of the players that carries us along. Which version(s) of these works you ultimately prefer will of course be down to individual taste, but to my ears the Van Baerle Trio is amongst the top rank in terms of performance and recorded quality.

Dominy Clements


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