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“Beethoven: Complete Piano Trios”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Trio for piano, violin and cello in E-flat major, opus 1, n° 1 – Trio for piano, violin and cello in G major, opus 1, n° 2 – Trio for piano, violin, and cello in C minor, opus 1, n° 3 – Trio for piano, violin and cello in B-Flat major, opus 11 “Gassenhauer”14 Variations in E-Flat major, opus 44 – Trio for piano, violin and cello in D major, opus 70, n° 1 “Ghost”Trio for piano, violin and cello in E-Flat major, opus 70, n° 2 – Trio for piano, violin and cello in B-Flat major, opus 97 “Archduke”10 Variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” in G major, opus 121a – Trio for piano, violin and cello in E-Flat major, WoO 38 – Trio for piano, violin and cello in B-Flat major, WoO 39 – Triple Concerto for piano, violin and cello in C major, opus 56 [*]

Trio Wanderer: Vincent Coq (piano), Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin), Raphaël Pidoux (cello), Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, James Conlon (conductor)
Recording: Philharmonie, Köln (December 17-19, 2001) [*] & Studio Teldex, Berlin (September 2010 & December 2011) – 169’18
5 CDs harmonia mundi HMX2932100.04 – (Distributed by [Integral]) – Book in French, English and German

At first glance, the piano trio may appear one of the slightest and least ostentatious of musical forms. Works for solo instrument, quartets, symphonic forms all command our immediate attention. The mild-mannered trio, however, is a shy flower, apt to be ignored and quickly forgotten.

But then, there is the trio as conceived by Beethoven. Ever one to shake up the musical world by replacing a polite minuet with a rollicking scherzo, or starting a symphony in a foreign key, the bombastic iconoclast from Bonn challenges us to hear trios in an entirely new way. The humble trio does, in fact, delineate the musical boundaries of Beethoven’s career. From the very first published work as Opus 1, through the mysterious “Ghost” trio and stretching the limits of our imagination in the monumental “Archduke”, Beethoven’s concept of the piano trio parallels his own life-long trajectory as a musical force to be reckoned with. The trios are like newly seeded gardens full of the potential for everything Beethoven will become.

That being said, a new recording of all of Beethoven’s piano trios, plus the Triple Concerto for Trio and Orchestra, brings us performances of these works with all the excitement and sense of discovery that the composer brought to their creation. A much-recorded, award-winning ensemble of Paris Conservatory alumni, Trio Wanderer comprises Vincent Coq, piano; Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, violin; and Raphaël Pidoux, cello. Performing together for more than 34 years, the group brings a conversational ease and affection to their playing which informs all the works on this album. There’s never a dull moment in the allegros and prestos, although the mood is somewhat less profound or brooding than one would like in the andante, adagio, and largo movements. But in answer to the question, “Is Beethoven a classicist or a romantic?”, they provide a cheerful answer, “The very best of both.”

The three Trios of his Opus 1 ushered Beethoven into the path of a professional composer. The three four-movement trios were published in 1795 during the period he studied with Haydn in Vienna. He had experimented with the trio form in his teens, and those youthful yet impressive efforts (WoO 38 and 39), also included in this collection, reveal the young musician’s earnest spirit and determination to master form no matter how eagerly his heart cried out for personal expression. I’ll touch on a few key moments in the paragraphs to follow.

Minimally, the lover of Beethoven’s music must know the Trio in B-Flat major, opus 97, the “Archduke”, completed in 1811 and published in 1816. The Trio gets its name from its dedication to the Archduke Rudolph, not only Beethoven’s patron but also his friend. Trio Wanderer gives this work a brisk, spirited reading, several minutes faster than many popular interpretations, which didn’t bother me a bit.

The concluding work in this album is Beethoven’s massive Triple Concerto, opus 56, a work for trio and orchestra. Here, Trio Wanderer is up to the challenge of a complex work from the composer’s so-called “Heroic” period, but the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, directed by James Conlon, is unexpectedly tame, providing a smooth backdrop rather than an engaging conversation with the three soloists. Vincent Coq, the trio’s brilliant pianist, at times, seemed to be providing most of the momentum to keep this large commanding work on track.

The album is still well worth possessing at the earliest possible moment for its consistent quality and the thoughtful interpretation of its soloists. The group’s performance of the two Opus 70 Trios, including the “Ghost” trio, provides a stimulating workout for our senses and demonstrates the intermingling of beauty and power that can occur when three musicians absorb and share great music over many years. Both Trios were composed while Beethoven, in his late 30s, was the guest of his friend, the Countess Erdody, at her country estate and perhaps was at the depth of despair over his hearing loss at this time. Pidoux’s cello, always light on the vibrato but silky in tone, sings the theme of the second movement with exquisite melancholy. No wonder it brought to the mind of Beethoven’s student, Carl Czerny, images of the ghost scene from Hamlet. Some additional volume control on the sound engineering side would have allowed us to more fully appreciate the beautiful cello playing so smoothly integrated with fellow soloists throughout these recordings.

The album also contains an arresting performance of Beethoven’s Kakadu Variations, opus 121a, based on a theme from a popular Viennese Singspiel. A series of light, sometimes whimsical variations are spun from the mournful opening and skip along playfully to a robust, even somber conclusion. We get a taste of the improvisational wizardry Beethoven could command, though his premiere performance of this work was a shambles due to his advanced deafness and represented one of his final appearances as a pianist. This is the last of Beethoven’s published Trios, bringing full circle Trio Wanderer’s varied and ever-fresh celebration of a modest form whose development is imprinted with moods as varied as those of the human heart.

Linda Holt




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