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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio No. 6 in E flat, op. 70 no. 2 (1808/9) [30:41]
Symphony No. 2 in D, op. 36 (1801/2, arr. piano trio by composer (?), 1806) [34:31]
Beethoven Trio Bonn
rec. 2019, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne
CAVI-MUSIC 8553111 [65:12]

When planning a recording of the standard repertoire, as Beethoven’s piano trios undoubtedly are, it isn’t a bad idea to have something that makes your release stand out. The Beethoven Trio Bonn is doing this by pairing one of the seven numbered trios with a work of Beethoven’s arranged for trio. In the case of Volume 1 (review), it was the triple concerto scaled down to just three players and in Volume 3, the Pastoral Symphony. I imagine the op. 20 septet arrangement will appear soon. By doing this, they are creating a “unique selling point” though they are also extending the number of releases in the series substantially, which will require a good deal of loyalty on the part of repeat purchasers.

Beethoven aficionados may find the symphony arrangement to be the more interesting prospect, though there are more than ten recordings of it already. Members of the piano trio fan club will perhaps have the opposite opinion. It was Trio No. 6 that I listened to first, partly because I needed to remind myself of the second symphony in its full orchestral garb before I listened to it in drawing room mode. The slow opening is taken gracefully by the Beethoven Trio Bonn, perhaps a little too much so, as I felt that it lacked something. Once the first movement had finished, I went to my reference recording - TrioVanBeethoven on Gramola (review) - and immediately found so much more character and interest, despite their version taking an extra thirty-plus seconds in the first movement. Another striking difference was the sound produced by the two violinists; regular readers will know that a harsh or hard violin tone is an instant turnoff for me. That of Mikhail Ovrutsky is by no means the worst I’ve heard, but it certainly wasn’t helping my opinion of the performance as a whole. I returned to the recording under consideration, and my impression remained constant throughout the rest of the work: a middle-of-the-road reading lacking in personality. This trio is rather in the shade of the much more appreciated Ghost trio, with which it shares an opus number, but it is still mature Beethoven. The best performances of this make a convincing argument that it is a great work; alas, the Bonn ensemble do not.

According to Arkiv Music’s catalogue, the Second Symphony has the fewest recordings of the nine. Certainly, it is quite a while since I’d heard it, which is why I needed to listen to it again before the trio version. That done, I returned to the trio, without, I have to admit, a great deal of enthusiasm. The booklet notes make the point that it is not definitely established that Beethoven was the actual arranger, though it would seem that, at the very least, he authorised it. So to the performance, and I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed it more than I’d expected. It is a far more dramatic work than the E flat trio, and hence the rather laidback approach that I found in that performance is less apparent here. The violin tone is still a problem, but the greater energy overall helps immeasurably. Would I listen to it in preference to the orchestral version? No, of course not. It is very much piano-dominated – almost a chamber piano concerto – and the orchestral colours are lost in this reduction. Because I hadn’t heard the symphony in this form before, I used the Naxos Music Library to listen to a few other versions, namely the Beaux Arts Trio, the Xyrion Trio (Naxos) and Trio Élégiaque (Brilliant). The former displayed its usual refinement, which didn’t really translate that well to this rather rambunctious work, the Xyrion didn’t impress me at all, but I did like Trio Élégiaque. That said, the Beethoven Trio Bonn stood up as equally good.

The recording quality is a little amorphous, which further hinders the E flat trio – by contrast, the TrioVanBeethoven sound makes me feel as though I’m in the room with them. The booklet notes, in German and English, are informative.

For me, the seven Beethoven trios plus the two sets of variations are the key works; the fragments and arrangements are of secondary interest. Hence, the bland reading of Trio No. 6 outweighs the far better performance of the symphony.

David Barker

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