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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio No.5 in D, ‘Ghost’, Op.70/1 (1808/09) [24:06]
Triple Concerto in C, Op.56 (1803/04, arranged for piano trio by Eduard Wilsing) [34:35]
Beethoven Trio Bonn
rec. 2018, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne
CAVI-MUSIC 8553108 [62:20]

The Beethoven 250 year, as well as a reason for trotting out new and old recordings of the basic repertoire, is also throwing up some novelties – or oddities, depending on your point of view. Naxos, for example, have been looking into forgotten nooks and crannies with a series of recordings which we have been following with interest, both as part of their bumper box set and separately. I mentioned some of them in my Spring 2020/1 round-up, which became so large and unruly, partly because of the Beethoven content, that it had to be split into Part A and Part B. There are more in my Beethoven 250 survey.

The Beethoven Trio Bonn [Jinsang Lee (piano), Mikhail Ovrutsky (violin), Grigory Alumyan (cello)], whose earlier, non-Beethoven recordings have been welcomed on MusicWeb, have been doing their share of casting light into odd corners of their eponymous composer. This is one of a three recordings; it’s the only one to be available in the UK on disc and as a download. Each combines a regular piano trio with a trio arrangement of a larger work. The other two, which I shall be reviewing separately, are:

- Piano Trio No.6 in E-flat, Op.70/2 [30:41] with Symphony No.2 (arranged for piano trio by Beethoven) [34:31] – rec. February 2019, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne. DDD. AVI8553111 [65:15] (CD, or AVI8553967, download only, with pdf booklet).

- Trio for clarinet, cello and piano in B flat, ‘Gassenhauer Trio’, Op.11 (1798) (arr. as Piano Trio No.4 by Beethoven) [21:25]; Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68, ‘Pastoral’ (1807/08) [arr. for piano trio by Christian Gottlieb Belcke (1796-1875)] [40:55] – rec. April 2019 Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne. DDD. AVI MUSIC AVI8553970 [62:20] (download only, with pdf booklet)

This kind of Hausmusik, making symphonies and concertos available for domestic performance, was common in Beethoven’s time, but it’s a moot point how well it works on record for an audience who can easily listen to the real thing. Linking the arrangements with the regular trios will certainly tempt prospective purchasers. On the other hand, the availability of all three as downloads means that if you want just the regular trios, or just the arrangements, you can pick and choose. Or you can stream all three albums from Naxos Music Library, where you can also find the booklets.

In fact, though the performances are good, often very good, I’m not sure that I could recommend these as my benchmarks for the three regular trios, when there is such a vast and distinguished field to choose from, whether complete, such as the Perlman/Ashkenazy/Harrell set on a budget-price 4-CD set (Warner 2564612987), the Florestan Trio (Hyperion CDS44471, 4 CDs, budget price – review DL News 2013/12), or in classic performances such as the Beaux Arts Trio (1964) in the ‘Ghost’, ‘Gassenhauer’ and ‘Archduke’ trios on a well-filled single low-medium-price Decca Virtuoso (4785153). Another fine single-CD recording couples TrioVanBeethoven in the Ghost Trio with Piano Trio No.1 and the Piano Trio in E-flat, WoO38, Volume 1 of a series (Gramola 99132 – review Autumn 2017/1).

I expected that transforming the Pastoral Symphony for piano trio would be the most formidable challenge, and there is certainly much that is lost – and gained – in the process. The Triple Concerto is, if anything, even trickier. In its original form it sounds like the Archduke Trio and the Emperor Concerto rolled into one. Add the fact that there are numerous very fine recordings of the original, not least the one from which I got to know it many moons ago, from Anda, Schneiderhan, Fournier and Fricsay (DG Originals 4775341, with Brahms Double Concerto, mid-price – Spring 2018/2), and another classic recording from Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Richter and Karajan (Warner Masters 6787052, mid-price, with Brahms Double Concerto) and it seemed unlikely at the outset that this cut-down version would work for me.

Very surprisingly, it did; much less seems to be missing than from the Pastoral, although, once again, the arrangement was not made by the composer. The opening allegro is on the brisk side, but there’s still time for the cello to take us aside and hint of something more contemplative. The same is true of the remaining movements – both a shade faster than the DG and, in the largo slow movement, than the Warner. If there is very slightly less emotional power in the largo than from the latter; it’s much less marked than comparing the timings might suggest, while the energy and delight of the finale more than atone.

The finale was still running through my head long after the music stopped. All in all, though I’m looking forward to hearing the new DG recording (Barenboim, Mutter, Ma and the West-Eastern Divan, 4838242, with Symphony No.7 – review), this looks like being my Triple Concerto for 2020.

It’s not just the nickname that makes the ‘Ghost’ Trio almost as popular as the ‘Archduke’. In fact, neither name tells us much about the music: the ‘Archduke’ merely perpetuates the name of one of many Beethoven sponsors and the ‘Ghost’ is named for the slowest of slow movements, supposedly full of Gothic gloom. This was, after all, the age of the Gothic novel.  Marked largo assai ed espressivo, it seems to foreshadow the late string quartets. It receives a sympathetic performance from the Beethoven Trio Bonn, but the Beaux Arts Trio on the well-filled Decca Virtuoso album listed above dare to take a minute longer; that extra minute makes all the difference and re-confirms my allegiance to the older recording.

TrioVanBeethoven also give the slow movement plenty of time to make its effect; at only a few seconds faster than the Beaux Arts Trio, I found much to enjoy, though the coupling – Op.1/1 and the uncatalogued WoO38 – is likely to appeal mainly to those collecting all the Beethoven piano trios. Beginners would be better advised to start with the Beaux Arts Trio coupling of the three most popular trios, available for around 8.50, or download in lossless sound quality for around 6.

The AVI recordings are good, but all three really need to be played at a higher level than usual. Even if I thought the notes sometimes made too strong a case for the trio reductions of the larger works, they are still very worthwhile.

If you buy these three recordings for the novelties, you will also receive assured performances of three regular works for piano trio. Only the arrangement of the Triple Concerto, however, was fully convincing, and though I enjoyed listening to these recordings, it’s best to look elsewhere for the three regular trios.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Gwyn Parry-Jones  

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