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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello no.5 in D major, op. 70 no.1 Ghost [24:11]
Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra in C, op.56 (arr. Wilsing) [34:35]
Beethoven Trio Bonn
rec. 2018, Cologne, Germany
CAVI-MUSIC 8553108 [58:44]

Something strange happened; a couple of weeks ago, a close friend and I had an exchange of emails in which we discussed, among other things, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. My friend said that he’d always thought the piece would be better without the orchestra. Three days later, this CD dropped through the letter box, featuring Friedrich Wilsing’s arrangement of the Triple Concerto. With, of course, no orchestra! Well, blow me down, as they say.

Whatever the explanation for that spooky coincidence, I greatly enjoyed this CD. The Beethoven Trio Bonn (‘BTB’) consists of three brilliantly talented players – a South Korean pianist and two Russian string players. This issue is the first of three that are to contain all the opus 70 trios, along with other more recherché repertoire. So here we have the great ‘Ghost’ Trio, op. 70 no.1, coupled with Wilsing’s version of the Triple Concerto.

There is at least one more chamber arrangement of this concerto. You might think that that reflects the unsatisfactory quality of the piece in its original version. But bear in mind that reductions to ‘domestic’ proportions of large-scale works were very frequently made in the 19th century, often by the composers themselves. In the days before recording, it was the best way for people to get to know the works they might otherwise have very few opportunities to encounter.

And in fact Wilsing’s arrangement works well, though it really is very hard work for the musicians, especially the pianist Jinsang Lee, who has torrents and fistfulls of notes! Truth is, though, my friend was right to raise doubts about the Triple Concerto. Though it has plenty of good music in it, and an endearing finale alla Polacca, it always sounds as if the trio of soloists are enjoying their own little party, into which the orchestra intrudes from time to time. In this version – problem solved!

But the real ‘meat’ of this disc is the wonderful ‘Ghost’ Trio, one of Beethoven’s supreme chamber works. The title (not Beethoven’s own, but suggested by Czerny) applies to the strange central very slow movement. Listeners expecting something spectral must be puzzled by the largely good-humoured and eventful opening Allegro vivace – though it does have its moments of mystery. But the slow movement really does cast a strange, mesmerising spell, and the BTBs rise superbly to its challenges, with playing that is imaginative and deeply expressive. The key is to achieve extremity of contrast, and they go for broke in that direction. I was struck by one or two departures from my score of the work; tiny details, to do with note-lengths, and piano chords that Lee arpeggiates rather than plays ‘straight’ – but all done convincingly, and true to the nature of the music.

The glorious romp that is the finale receives an irresistible performance, full of cheeky humour and surging energy. The main theme is a curious one; it charges off, but comes to frequent and sudden pauses, like a driver setting off happily and immediately coming to a ‘dead end’. I love the way these players treat these pauses; there is a temptation to touch the brakes going into them. But far more effective, and entertaining, is the way the BTBs charge impetuously into each barrier. Intelligent, imaginative music-making of a very high order.

The recording is so good that I didn’t even notice it! In other words – perfect; and that is no mean feat in a work such as this (though equal praise goes to the players themselves for securing such a fine inner balance).

A really special CD – I look forward to hearing Volumes 2 and 3.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Jinsang Lee, piano, Mikhail Ovrutsky, violin, Grigory Alumyan, cello

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