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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Trios
Suk Trio
rec. 1983-1984, Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU4297-2 [4 CDs: 257:21]

In the early 1960s the Suk Trio - Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) and Josef Chuchro (cello) – recorded three Beethoven piano trios in Prague for Supraphon. They were the C minor, Op. 1 No. 3, the D major, Op. 70 No. 1 (the Ghost), and the Archduke. These recordings and the allied Schubert First Piano trio have been reissued on Supraphon SU 3959–2. Two decades later the ensemble, now with Josef Hála in place of Panenka (and thus becoming the three Josefs), recorded a complete cycle that included the two sets of variations. This cycle, which began in June 1983 and finished in April the following year, was made for Japanese Denon and issued on that label as well as on Supraphon. The location was constant; the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum.

It’s my impression that this set has been overlooked until these very handsome restorations in an elegant box set. The significantly earlier Beaux Arts Trio set has always featured prominently on collectors’ shelves as has the Szeryng-Fournier-Kempff traversal, alongside such established ensembles as the Stern-Rose-Istomin and the later Zukerman-Du Pré-Barenboim and Perlman-Harrell-Ashkenazy trios.

Maybe the market then couldn’t bear that much competition or perhaps the superficially higher voltage of these other trios over the Suk counted in their favour. What’s also clear, if the precedent of those 1960s Suk Trio performances is indicative, is that the Czech players’ conception had changed over the years, notwithstanding a relatively new pianist (Hála joined in 1980). The 1960s performances are that much more vitalised than the Denon remakes and there’s a touch more kick to the rhythms. By the 1980s the trio’s performances had reached an apex of elegance and refinement and there is throughout a feeling of sheer grace and style. Their approach to the Op.1 set is of a piece; the affectionate lyrical unfolding of the slow movement of the E flat major, Hála’s beautiful playing in the Largo con expressione of the G major, and the congenial phrasing in the Menuetto of the C minor are indices of their expressive rapport, and, in the main, an unforced, somewhat understated approach to the music. They succeed in never inflating it, preferring a judicious balance between refinement and those necessary moments of contrast, to which they bring a proper sense of flair. Even here, though, their liveliness never spills over into aggression.

It’s for this reason that Chuchro, a penetrating musician irrespective of the repertoire, is so important a component of this set’s effectiveness. His eloquence in the slow movement of the Op.11 trio is immediately consolidated by Josef Suk’s devoutly phrased playing, the two string players dovetailing with solemn dignity. The characterisation in the finale’s variations – and this is a feeling magnified in the two sets of variations – is of a collegiate exploration of the music’s sense of fun. No one tries to dominate – certainly not Suk, too great a chamber player to destabilise things in this way – and as a result the music emerges as beautifully balanced, tenderly warm, poised and pointed.

That said, one does feel an increasing sense of incisiveness from the two Op.70 trios onwards. It doesn’t in any way replace or reduce those qualities that irradiate the earlier works but it does bring a slightly higher quotient of audacity. The slow movement of the Ghost, for instance, remains elegant but it’s accompanied by a parallel refusal to indulge, either tempo or expression.

The Archduke differs only relatively slightly from their 1960s reading and that’s most marked in the opening movement which is just a touch more relaxed in June 1983. It was amongst the earliest of the tranche to have been recorded and it sounds fresh as ever it did and throughout is beautifully balanced. No matter how well Supraphon has scrubbed up the 1960s version in subsequent CD restoration, this Denon was invariably its superior in sound quality and sounds superb in this restoration, as do all the allied works in this 4-CD box.

The combination of the Czech engineers’ expertise in the Rudolfinum and the Suk Trio’s cultivated dynamics, tonal congruity and sense of intimacy gives this set a profound sense of selflessness and radiates a sheer love of the music.

Jonathan Woolf

Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No. 1 E Flat major, Op. 1 No.1 (1795) [30:58]
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No. 2 G major Op.1 No. 2 (1795) [32:22]
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No. 3 in C minor, Op. 1 No.3 (1793-95) [29:22]
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No. 8 E Flat major, WoO 38 (1790-91) [14:24]
14 Variations in E flat major, Op. 44 (1792-1800) [13:04]
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 11 (1798) [21:57]
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No. 5 in D major, Op. 70 No.1 Ghost (1808) [23:21]
Piano Trio No. 6 E Flat major. Op. 70 No.2 (1808) [30:25]
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 97 Archduke (1811-13) [38:26]
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No. 9 B Flat major WoO39 (1812) [5:31]
10 Variations in G major on a Theme Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu (Trio No. 11), Op. 121a (c.1803 rev 1816) [16:32]

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