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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trios - Volume 1
Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1 No. 3 [28:48]
Allegretto in B flat major, WoO 39 [6:02]
Piano Trio in E flat major, Op. 70 No. 2 [30:28]
Sitkovetsky Trio
rec. 2018 Potton Hall, Westleton, UK
BIS BIS-2239 SACD [66:17]

If you could turn the clock back a year or so – unless, perhaps, you happen to possess extraordinarily accurate prescient powers – the quite surreal situation in which the world now finds itself, would be all but impossible to predict. The ramifications impact on every single one of us, whether by restricting our daily life, or the wholesale postponement of such major happenings as the Olympic Games, or the annual tennis championship at Wimbledon, the first time the latter has had to be cancelled since WW2.

While these sporting events will be sorely missed by their fans, for classical music aficionados, the year 2020 also marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, arguably one of the greatest composers of all time. But instead of concert halls all around the world echoing to his music throughout the year, there is an eerie silence as live performances have all been curtailed – almost as if the great man was expressing his own frustration that he was latterly unable to hear much of his music because of his increasing deafness.

However, the music industry is particularly resourceful, and has readily taken advantage of the modern technology most of us carry around in our pocket, as well as having at home, too. All manner of concerts, operas, and musical events can be streamed direct into our front room, and with the unfortunate demise of most local SACD dealers, everything is available online, either in the form of the physical product, or as a simple download in various formats.

This new SACD on the BIS label just happens to be Beethoven and Beethoven in his trademark key of C minor – one that always seems to bring out the very best in the composer. Physically, the SACD is protected by a folding card, rather than plastic jewel case, but it was good to find that the disc itself came inside its own paper sleeve – just like the good old vinyl ones did, and the informative booklet comes in English, German, and French. The Sitkovetsky Trio was formed in 2007, and is named after its violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, who was born in Moscow, before moving to the UK’s Menuhin School. Originally all three players were also from the Menuhin School, until German-Korean cellist Isang Enders replaced the original performer in 2019.

Textbooks usually include chapters on both the Classical, and Romantic Periods, separated by an individual one devoted to Beethoven, acknowledging his unique position in the History of Music. In virtually every genre, he took up where his predecessors like Haydn and Mozart had left off, and, developed them often into something so different, and yet intrinsically similar, during what is normally referred to as his Early, Middle, and Late Periods. You only have to look at his monumental set of 32 piano sonatas, or 16 string quartets, to see this transformation.

Haydn’s piano trios, for example, are dominated by the piano. The violin gets some chances to play the melody, though often doubled by the keyboard, while the cello tends to be the poor relation, often merely doubling the piano’s bassline. However, Mozart strove to give each instrument a more equal share of the proceedings, and certainly by the time of his late piano trios, balance of the instruments and clear three-part dialogue were both par for the course.

Beethoven wrote his three Op. 1 piano trios in 1794-95, and the first thing that stands out is that, unlike Mozart, who usually favoured the basic fast-slow-fast three-movement form, from No 1 in E flat, all three trios have movements, Beethoven adding a Scherzo or Minuet to the mix, as he did with his first string quartet, and first symphony – Opp. 18 and 21 respectively. The Sitkovetsky Trio opens its account with the Trio No. 3 in C minor, the most dramatic of the set, not only because of its thematic material, but also, of course, because of the composer’s unique empathy with the key. Horst A Scholz’s most comprehensive sleeve-notes – both insightful and absorbing – inform us that Haydn, who was currently teaching the 24-year-old Beethoven, felt that the C minor trio was so revolutionary, and even advised against its publication. Later, according to Beethoven’s own pupil, Ferdinand Ries, Haydn had feared that the work would ‘not be understood so quickly and easily’. Fortunately. the world as Haydn knew it, was already changing, and the trios, particularly No. 3, became a commercial success as well as forerunners of a new taste in music.

I have to admit, though. when I first began to listen to the almost ghostly start of the opening Allegro con brio, the violin’s little cadenza-like figure starting in the eighth bar (measure), just before the busy main theme is announced, initially came over as especially wispy, even with its pianissimo marking, and really challenged the audible threshold to the very limit. As I listened to more and more of the work, and then the SACD as a whole, I came to the conclusion that Sitkovetsky appears not to have fully estimated the intrinsic volume, for example, of his own pianissimo, by considering the same dynamic marking when played by the other two instruments respectively. Of course, it would be easy to lay the blame elsewhere – Isang Enders’s cello, for example, is an instrument with a lovely natural resonance, while pianist Wu Qian is rightly never backward in coming forward, and always plays with great verve and brilliance, but I still consider that the onus is on him.

The recording is certainly not to blame either – in fact quite the opposite. BIS have really come up trumps, in terms of clarity, presence, and stereo positioning, and they have also managed to present the very widest dynamic range right across the frequency scale. That we can hear the violin’s opening riposte attests at least as much to the sound engineer as the player – and I wasn’t able to audition the SACD on a dedicated SACD machine.

As the opening movement progresses, Wu Qian’s highly assured pianism stands out, as she despatches all manner of runs and figurations with all the panache and aplomb of the young Beethoven, in a work so clearly designed as a showpiece for him, both as a performer, and composer, However, that is not to gainsay her equal sensibility in the more expressive moments along the way, and particularly in her delicate cantabile treatment of the theme which opens the slow movement, and the set of five variations that ensue. This is then followed by a typical Beethoven hybrid – a Scherzo in the guise of a Minuet, marked Quasi Allegro, or ‘as if lively’. The composer could easily have marked it Andantino, which on paper might amount to the same thing – ‘a little lively’. But I think Beethoven’s intention is that, while it is clearly cast in three beats to a bar, like a minuet, there is also an essential element of the one-in-bar feel of a Scherzo. This is most apparent in the Trio in the tonic major key, where the piano’s rippling scales could hardly be more effective, simply because the Sitkovetskys have, I feel, got the tempo just so. Anything faster or slower would seems to have a disrupting effect on the otherwise successful bond between the individual movements.

Then, when the stormy Prestissimo Finale bursts on the scene, there is real excitement and frisson in the playing, again dominated and led by the piano, with the main support coming from the cello beneath. The players are most effective in maintaining the essential juxtaposition between the fiery passages, and those of a calmer, more expressive disposition. The work, somewhat surprisingly ends pianissimo, or, as the SACD booklet informs us the composer’s biographer Joseph von Wasielewski put it, ‘seems to dissolve into the ether’. But Beethoven was already aware of his unique talents, and, like Liszt in his Piano Sonata, had no need at all to rely on the kind of drawn-out ending here, that he used in another of his great works in the same key – the Fifth Symphony. The Sitkovetskys are, however, very effective in bringing off this almost tongue-in-cheek denouement.

Before moving on to one of the composer’s piano trios from his middle period, the players now include Beethoven’s last contribution to the genre, the little Allegretto in B flat, WoO 39, composed in 1812 for Maximiliane, the ten-year-old daughter of Franz and Antonie Brentano – or, as it says on the title page of the autograph manuscript, ‘for my little friend Maxe Brentano, to encourage her piano playing’. The work is a charming single movement in sonata form, where, unsurprisingly, the piano gets the privilege of introducing both subjects. Sometimes ‘little’ works like this can be more difficult to bring off, than those of far greater substance, where performers sometimes try to search for some elusive meaning or agenda. But that is certainly not the case here, and the trio, especially the pianist, present it with simple sincerity and childlike innocence of a talented young ten-year-old. As a reviewer of the time put it, ‘How wonderfully appealing, melodious and heartfelt Beethoven can be when he wants to’.

The final work on the SACD is the second trio from the Op. 70 set. The first, nicknamed ‘Ghost’, is probably the better known of the pair, while No. 2 in E flat is one of the composer’s most lovable, as well as one of the most subtle of his chamber works, with a mellow, intimate tone that recalls the contemporary A major Cello Sonata, Op. 69. Again, Scholz, in his sleeve-note, informs us that, when, some twenty years after the C minor Piano Trio, German writer, musician, and painter, E T A Hoffmann reviewed the two Op. 70 trios, the new era, which we saw more than a glimpse of in the earlier work, was now firmly established, and to Hoffmann the works confirmed ‘how Beethoven carries the Romantic spirit of music deep within his soul’.

The second Trio begins with a slow introduction, after which the movement transforms itself into a somewhat jaunty Allegro ma non troppo in 6/8 time, but, as Hoffmann apparently remarked, it is not the kind of jaunty finale, heard in the equivalent finale of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in the same key, Op. 31 No. 3, but something with a more dignified gait and character. The playing is spontaneous and exciting when the music requires, but personally I’m still looking for a tad more from the violin on occasions.

The Trio doesn’t have a slow movement as such, the second movement – Allegretto – being somewhat faster, and full both of dramatic sections (minor), and those of almost childlike expression (major), as it alternates between C major and C minor. The ensuing Allegretto ma non troppo is in - three beats to the bar – and harks back to the Minuet of times past. There are more opportunities here for the violin to step forward, which does happen to a certain degree, though, dynamically-speaking, the cello is never far behind in shared passages or two-part harmony. Even in the Trio section which sets little self-contained doubled-stopped string chords against responses from the piano, the violin doesn’t go out of its way to put any extra weight on the top line, which usually tends to happen, in chord passages, particularly on the piano. The finale (Allegro) provides a virtuoso conclusion with a forward motion that is only rarely interrupted, or, according to Scholz’s booklet, ‘a persistent, always intensifying thrust and urgency – thoughts, images chase past in a restless flight, lighting up and disappearing like flashes of lightning’, as Hoffmann far more eloquently put it.

A cursory glance through the catalogue will confirm that you are certainly not spoilt for choice, as far as recordings of the works featured on this new SACD are concerned. In fact, MWI colleague David Barker has included some very helpful advice in the relevant section of his Piano Trio Survey, updated earlier in 2020, and just prior to the issue of this present new release. He specifically discusses a number of recordings of Beethoven Piano Trios, both complete sets, and various selections. With soundbites freely available online, you can then compare and contrast different performances, including this new venture by the Sitkovetsky Trio on the BIS label.

Philip R Buttall

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