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As mentioned in my Introduction, the trios of Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788, Germany) & Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782, Germany) are on the borderline between the older trio sonata (or accompanied sonata) and the true piano trio. They are works from the 1760s and 1770s. However, as I explained, I have chosen to include any work that has been labelled a “piano trio” in recordings. Even that isn’t conclusive here, because the CPO recording of works by Emanuel shows “Piano Trios” on the front cover, but the track listing on the back identifies them as Sonatas. Nevertheless, I will include it in my commentary.
Likewise, there is some confusion regarding the works of Christian in Wikipedia’s list of compositions: op. 2 is listed twice, the first batch of six named as trio sonatas (WB30-35) and the second batch being piano trios (WB43-48). It is not as though they are simply being listed under two different titles, since the respective numbered works in each set are all in different keys.
There are only two recordings of some of Emanuel’s trios, and just one for Christian. The German ensemble Trio 1790 recorded two CDs in the mid-1990s: one disc features five of Emanuel’s thirteen from Wq 89-91, the other all of Christian’s from opp. 2 & 15. Trio 1790 is a highly regarded trio specialising in the era around 1790. They have recorded all of Haydn’s trios for CPO plus a number of other lesser known composers. They use authentic instruments, a fortepiano in the case of the CPE recording, and a harpsichord (op. 2) and fortepiano (op. 15) for the JC. I fully understand the choice of these instruments, but it doesn’t make them sound any better to my pianoforte-preferring ears. The harpsichord does have a quite rich and pleasing sound, indeed more so than the fortepiano, which I found quite tiring in the typically energetic CPE faster movements. Those who enjoy the older keyboard instruments will undoubtedly find much here to enjoy. The very different styles of the Bach siblings is in evidence, and the recordings of Trio 1790 have been pretty much universally acclaimed. The only competition, Trio Cristofori, also uses a fortepiano for their CPE selection – three of six in common with the CPO – and it should be noted that they are named as accompanied keyboard sonatas. A comparison (excerpts only) has Trio 1790 well ahead. Those who prefer the sound of the modern piano will have to wait, but it might be advisable not to hold one’s breath.
Wq 89/1, 5 & 6, 90/3, 91/3
Wq 89/2, 3 & 5, 90/2 & 3, 91/3
opp. 2 & 15
Between two famous names is a very obscure one - Angelo Maria
Benincori (1779-1821, Italy). Among his operas is some
chamber music, with a set of three trios from 1808. I could
only hear 30 second samples of them - a curiosity at best, as miuch
for the Donizetti coupling.
De Meglio, Donizetti
And thus we reach Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827,
Germany). His first published works, in 1793, were a set of three piano trios, and there is no qualms about labelling them as true trios. Beethoven wrote ten full-scale works for the combination: eight named as trios (opp. 1/1-3, 11, 70/1 & 2, 97, WoO38) and two sets of variations (opp. 44 & 121). There are also a number of fragments and rearrangements of other works. The best-known are the two named trios: “Ghost” (op. 70/1) and “Archduke” (op. 97), both with more than 70 recordings currently available. Even the least recorded of the ten – the op. 44 variations – has more than 30. So I hope you will excuse me if I don’t attempt to comment on all of them.
There are a dozen or so “complete” sets of the Beethoven trios. I have three (Florestan/Hyperion, Wanderer/Harmonia Mundi & Ashkenazy/EMI). The Beaux Arts Trio and the Borodin Trio have their admirers; I don’t have access to the former but they are always a safe bet, whereas the latter are frequently prone to slow tempos, and a few test samples suggest the same here. There are some “big name” sets (Stern/Rose/Istomin; Kempff/Szeryng/Fournier; Barenboim/Zukerman/du Pré) though you may only find them in large box sets of more than the trios.
Of “my” three, the Florestan Trio (review) finds just the right balance between Classicism and Romanticism. Outstanding as the Trio Wanderer was in Arensky (and others), it seems to miss something in Beethoven. The star trio set of Ashkenazy, Perlman and Harrell from the 1980s, which may no longer be readily available, is “bigger” Beethoven than the newer Florestan and Wanderer sets. This does seem to be a trend of the last decade or so: the Beethoven trios are treated in a more Classical fashion than they used to be; in other words, closer to Haydn & Mozart than Schumann and Brahms. Depending on your preference, that may decide you on older versus new recordings.
One of the more interesting releases of recent times is of the Archduke and op. 70 No. 2 trios on Harmonia Mundi by the well-known soloists Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov. What makes it interesting? All three are playing historic instruments, Melnikov a fortepiano from 1828. Brian Wilson made it a Recording of the Month (review), the quality of the performances overcoming any reservations about the keyboard sound. I certainly agree with Brian’s thoughts regarding the fortepiano – it sounds as good as I imagine such an instrument ever could. For me, it is the very strident tone of Isabelle Faust’s violin that takes some getting used to. No qualms about the performance though; they have found the balance between clarity and passion better even than the Florestans. I do, nonetheless, find myself wishing that they had used modern instruments, but it may be that some of the clarity would have been lost.
There is some competition for the Harmonia Mundi release in the authentic instruments category. Sony has Jos van Immerseel, Vera Beths and Anner Bylsma playing the Archduke and the Ghost trios. The sound of the three instruments is fine, though the recording doesn’t do the fortepiano any favours, being overly resonant in places, and lost behind the strings elsewhere. I find the performances rather under-characterised, particularly in comparison with the Melnikov group. The Castle Trio had a number of recordings on Virgin Classics, reissued but now hard to find on Erato, one of which was reviewed here quite positively.
If your preference is for older-style performances, not older instruments, then you are spoilt for choice. The field is strewn with the great soloists of the twentieth century: Heifetz & Rubinstein, Cortot, Thibaud & Casals, Oistrakh, and the aforementioned Kempff, Stern, Barenboim et al. With the older recordings comes the inevitable compromise of boxy, crackly sound. The one that I have been listening to is the Archduke by Cortot, Thibaud & Casals on Warner/EMI – part of the Great Recordings of the Century series – and there is no question that it is a great recording, and the sound is more than adequate.
Returning to the modern day with modern instruments, if you don’t want a full set, the Kempf Trio on BIS provide a fine recording of the Archduke and op. 1/3 (review). Our reviewer described it as “the finest Beethoven chamber playing I’ve ever heard”. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is certainly very good, and worthwhile considering if you are just starting out with the Beethoven trios.
While I don’t intend to comment on each work individually, let me put a word in for a less appreciated one – Trio 2, op. 1/2. It doesn’t have a nickname, and because it is a very early work, its qualities tend to be downplayed. It is certainly Beethoven looking over his shoulder at Haydn and Mozart, but the contrast between the tender slow movement and the playful finale is absolutely winning.
Here the Florestan Trio is unchallenged, and you can buy it as a single disc (Volume 3) with op. 1/1 and WoO39 – if you wish. Of the others that I auditioned, the German ensemble Trio Jean Paul is outstanding, and comes with a more interesting coupling (op. 70/2). The first volume of what presumably will be a complete set from the Gould Trio was quite enjoyable, as was the Grieg Trio, but it comes coupled with an extended sombre angst-ridden work by Peter Maxwell Davies, which seems to have nothing in common with the two Beethoven trios it separates. The accounts by Trio Fontenay & the Gryphon and Xyrion Trios were unmemorable, and that of the Haydn Trio Vienna was terribly mannered. While there were some lovely moments in the Barenboim/Zukerman/du Pré, there were many others where Romantic heaviness was too much.
The ambitiously named Beethoven Project Trio released a volume of “bits and pieces” by which I mean trio fragments and rearrangements of other works for trio. According to the review, the trio was formed with the express purpose of recording all Beethoven’s works for the genre, and this first release included a world premiere. However, that was in 2011 and since then there have been no more.
So where does that leaves us with the Beethoven trios? If you have any interest in chamber music, you really need to have the Ghost and Archduke in your collection, and you have many, many choices. There are too many reviews to list individually here: see the index page.
Beaux Arts Trio
opp. 1/1-2 & 11
Gould Piano Trio
opp. 1/2, 44, 70/1 & WoO39
opp. 1/2 & 70/1; Maxwell Davies: A Voyage to Fair Isle
opp. 1/2 & 97
Haydn Trio Vienna
opp. 1/2 & 70/1 & 2
Trio Jean Paul
opp. 1/2 & 70/2
opp. 1/3 & 97
opp. 1/1 & 2 & WoO39
Ashkenazy, Perlman, Harrell
Barenboim, Zukerman, du Pré
appears in many different releases
Immerseel, Beths, Bylsma
opp. 70/1 & 97
Melnikov, Faust, Queyras
opp. 70/2 & 97
Cortot, Thibaud, Casals
op. 97, Schubert 1
Charles Auguste de Bériot (1802-1870, Belgium) was best known as a concert violinist, and if he is remembered as a composer at all, it is for his violin concertos. He wrote six works for piano trio during the 1830s and 40s. As far as I can tell, two – opp. 59 & 71 – remain unrecorded. The discography numbers two, one of which (Talent) features four of the six. I haven’t heard it but it has been reviewed on Musicweb International fairly positively. The other CD (Christophorus) is the one I have heard and features Trio 2. The first movement has a gloriously noble main theme, with interesting writing for all three instruments, which given Beriot’s main profession is perhaps a surprise. The other two movements don’t live up to the promise of the first, leading me to not pursue the Talent CD.
(Note - there is some confusion regarding the numbering of the
Beriot trios, and I am simply repeating those provided by the
Kasai, Nagata, Drobinsky
Trios 1 & 2, Grand trio, Nocturne
Göbel Trio Berlin
Trio 2, Loewe
The works of Franz Berwald (1796-1868, Sweden) don’t appear in new releases anywhere near as often as his importance in the development of Scandinavian music and the quality of his writing deserves. There were no recordings including even one work of his in all of 2014. None of his piano trios have more than three recordings, and all were made last century.
Marco Polo released two CDs in the 1990s covering all completed trios and some fragments with two different sets of performers. These have been subsequently reissued on Naxos. Be aware that the Marco Polo recordings are still available as downloads in parallel with the Naxos ones, so if you do decide to buy them in this format, don’t spend 50% more on the Marco Polo versions.
Trios 1-4 were composed within a few years of each in the early 1850s when Berwald was in Hamburg. His first attempt in the genre from 1845 is unnumbered, and is essentially a discarded draft for Trio 4. The model is undoubtedly Mendelssohn, with some Hummel in the piano writing. The two standout works are 1 & 3, especially the latter, and it is the only one that has three recordings. That’s the good news. The bad news is that one (Musica Sveciae) is unavailable, another (Tacet) is only available in full-price CD format with no online means to sample its quality and the third, while available (Marco Polo/Naxos) is marred by less than an ideal performance and ugly tone from the violinist. I note that
the Abegg Trio on Tacet are slower in each movement than the Marco Polo performances, which doesn’t inspire me to order it.
It is unfortunate that the best performances of Berwald’s trios, by the Gaudier Ensemble with pianist Susan Tomes of Domus and Florestan trio fame, are of the two lesser works (2 & 4). It is not known why the recording project petered out half way through, and it is certainly regrettable that they didn’t start with the better works. They have been reissued by Hyperion with other Berwald chamber works as a 2-for-the-price-of-1 set (review).
Trio 3, Farrenc
Trios 2 & 4, Piano quintet 1, Duo, Septet, Quartet for piano & winds
Drafi, Modrian, Kertesz
Marco Polo Naxos
Trio 4, Trio in C, Scherzo, Introduction
Prunyi, Kiss, Onczay
Marco Polo Naxos
Negro, Lysell, Karlsson
Trios 1 & 3, Piano Quintet 1
Edward Bache (1833-1858, England) was a friend of Felix Mendelssohn, from the latter’s time in Bache’s hometown of Birmingham. Even more so than Mendelssohn (or Mozart or Schubert), Bache had little time to develop as a composer, and his 1852 Trio is very much in the thrall of his friend. I haven’t been able to listen to the whole work, only brief excerpts of each movement, so I will quote the review at Allmusic.com by way of suggesting that the work is one for the collector only: “predictable and rather superficial … show(s) industriousness but only a modicum of ingenuity”.
English Piano Trio
Romance, Duo brillante, Songs
Woldemar Bargiel (1828-1897, Germany) was a contemporary of Brahms, and shared a connection of more than just chronology, in that he was the half-brother of Clara Schumann. He too wrote three piano trios, at which point the similarities cease. Trio Parnassus, whose name will appear many times throughout this survey linked to little known composers, have made the only recordings of the three. They are on two separate CDs, but alas the one with two of the three is no longer available on CD. It can be purchased from a number of download sites, but without a booklet, one of my pet peeves, and rather important for such a little known composer. What I have heard is unsurprisingly Brahmsian, and of sufficient quality to tempt me to overcome my “no booklet” aversion.
Bargiel 2 & 3
Violin sonata, Adagio
Courtesy of a Messageboard
contributor is the Grand Trio of Jacques (Jacob) Blumenthal
(1829-1908, Germany). Its original omission
illustrates the challenge, and I'd like to think the value, of this
endeavour. None of my very comprehensive sources (Earsense,
IMSLP or the Hinson book) list it, yet a recording is readily
available. From the samples I have heard, it sounds like a
typical mid-19th century work, in which I hear hints of Schubert.
The couplings are unusual to say the least, very French Salon with
the inclusion of a harmonium, which may not to be everyone's taste.
Maynard, Bourin, Bouveresse
Saint-Saens: Serenade, Cohen, Pasdeloupe: Aurora
Christian Barnekow (1837-1913, Denmark) was totally unknown to me before beginning this project. His only trio, from 1861, was his first published work. While he was a keyboardist of some repute, it is the writing for strings that stands out here. Each movement has its charms, the andante con moto second movement particularly lovely, and the overall impression is very favourable. When you take into account fine performances by the Eskar Trio and the equally unusual and interesting discmates – trios by Emil Hartmann and Peter Heise – this is a very strong recommendation. You will, however, have to buy it as a download as ClassicO CDs are now longer available.
We now jump forward more than fifty years, as by a quirk of happenstance, there seem to be no recorded trios by composers in this part of the alphabet between Bargiel’s third in 1868 and that of René-Emmanuel Bâton (1879-1940, France) in 1923. It is an unmistakeably French work, following in the footsteps of Fauré, Ravel & Debussy, but made much earthier by the use Breton folk tunes. As with the Barnekow, excellent performances and an interesting coupling make this a very attractive proposition.
The Three Nocturnes by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959, Switzerland/USA) date from 1924, and are among the first works he wrote on becoming a US citizen. In three widely contrasting movements lasting only eight or so minutes, there is a lot of fine music, leading me to wish that he written a full-scale trio. Plenty of choice recording-wise: at least ten are currently available. Given the brevity of the work, it is hard to make too many conclusions about superior and inferior performances, and it is probably more a matter of which couplings interest you more. Both recordings reviewed here – Pacific Trio ~~ Hartley Trio – have been well regarded. I have heard the former and it is indeed very good.
Trio Con Brio Copenhagen
Dvorak 4, Ravel
Martin, Shostakovich 1 & 2
Beach, Cowell, Copland: Vitebsk, Ives
Cassado, Martin; Copland: Vitebsk
New Arts Trio
Fleur de Son
Beethoven 5, Brahms 1, Pärt: Mozart-Adagio, Piazzolla: La muerte del
Trio Nota Bene
Raff, Martin, Honegger
Rawlins Piano Trio
Cadman, Hadley 2; Mason: Sentimental Sketches
Fauré, Schubert: Notturno, Widor: 4 Pieces
Catherine Wilson Trio
Chamber music is not what one usually associates with Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990, USA). It is in fact a work of his teenage years, and bears few hints of West Side Story. Opinions vary as to its quality – our two reviews of the Onyx recording illustrate that. Michael Cookson describes it as “uneven in quality” while Steve Arloff sees it as “an amazingly mature work”. I have heard it performed live and wasn’t especially enthused. Listening to it again, I don’t find my opinion changed, but there are some nice moments. Like the Bloch, there are plenty of choices available and if you do like it, it will be probably be a matter of the couplings: all Bernstein or 20th century chamber works, mostly American. The Onyx recording referred to above fits into the latter category, and is highly praised for the performances. It also has the novelty of an Elliott Carter work with a melody.
Barber: Quartet, Carter: Elegy, Copland: Violin sonata, Ives: Largo
The trio by Amy Beach (1867-1944, USA)
was undoubtedly anachronistic by 1938, with its mix of Debussian wistfulness and Brahmsian seriousness, but none the worse for that. Unless you need your music to slavishly follow the trends of the time in which it is written, you should enjoy this. If you want Beach only, then the Chandos recording is the one to go for (review). The one on BIS is somewhat oddly lumped in with a collection of Beach songs, with unfortunately the great Emma Kirkby apparently well out of her comfort zone (review). I haven’t heard the other two, and they will be hard to track down on CD.
Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953, Britain) wrote a number of trios for various combinations, the best known being the Elegiac for flute, viola and harp. Only one is for the combination considered here, being his last chamber work, written in 1946. He was asked to compose one by a friend, and initially declined, stating that the combination was too hard to write for, the only person to have succeeded being Dvorak. Obviously he changed his mind. To my mind, he might have been better to stick to his first thoughts, as the work has few memorable moments. Of the four recordings, I think the always reliable Gould Trio on Naxos would be the choice, for a number of reasons, price being a significant one. Our reviewers certainly liked it. Fairly predictably, the Borodin Trio on Chandos is very slow, at more than 26 minutes, compared to the Gould’s 21. This isn’t a work that needs to be drawn any longer than necessary. The Pirasti Trio (review) has very interesting couplings, but will be hard to come by, on CD at least.
RTE Lyric FM
Beethoven 5, Bernstein
Gould Piano Trio
Clarinet sonatas & trio
Holst, Stanford 2
The 1953 trio of Arno Babadjanian (1921-1983, Armenia) has received considerable recording attention for a composer of his relatively minor stature, including one with the composer on piano and no less a violinist than David Oistrakh. It is not difficult to see why: the work is firmly in the late-Romantic school, tempered with a little French coolness in the glorious slow movement. The finale brings in elements of the composer’s national folk music. Both of our reviewers have praised the Potch Trio on Delos, but I think it is outshone by the Amici Ensemble on Atma Classique, both in the performance, and in the couplings. The outer movements are taken faster, the slow movement slower, emphasising the contrasts. The three substantial Armenian works for clarinet, violin and cello, for me, are more interesting than the much more modernist Vasks work on the Delos.
The two trios by Nicolas Bacri (b., 1961, France) from the early 1990s were well-received here. The review likens them to Shostakovich in their anguish and torment. Unfortunately, the recording is no longer available.
Millet, Lansdale, Kluksdahl
Other chamber works
Finally, some works all fitting more or less into the modernist category, on which I find myself unable to comment usefully. They aren’t necessarily atonal, but I found them unengaging. I wish you better luck – most can be previewed at sites like Spotify.
Roots II (1992)
Beaux Arts Trio
Zimmermann, Mataityte, Kulikauskas
Landscape of Memories (1996)
BMF Piano Trio
In the asylum
String Band (2002)
Triple Helix Trio
Debussy's La Mer, The Seafarer
Gould Piano Trio
Aperitif & Entertainments
Music & Arts
Mehta, Pignotti, Moores
New World Records/CRI
Fellner, Batiashvili, Brendel
Göbel Trio Berlin
Blackwood, Pikler & Stucka
Ethel Barns – Trio in f (1904)
Richard Barth – Trio in a, op. 19
Julius (Gyula) von Beliczay – Trio in E, op. 30
Victor Bendix – Trio in A, op. 12 (1877)
William Sterndale Bennett – Chamber Trio, op. 26 (there was a recording,
now deleted, by Trio Lengyel on the Media 7 label)
Hermann Berens – 5 trios, opp. 6, 20 & 95
Leopoldine Blahetka – Trio, op. 5