Beethoven’s five String Trios definitely seem to score low in the popularity stakes if actual numbers of performances are an indication of their standing amongst chamber musicians. Quite why this is so I’m not sure. Setting aside, for the moment, the Opp. 3 and 8, the set of three published together as Op. 9 in 1799 are weighty, profound and display that striking level of maturity and sophistication one finds in the Op. 18 String Quartets published two years later. Indeed, these three trios can be seen as a milestone in preparation for the quartets. Beethoven eventually began to realize the sonorous possibilities of adding an extra instrument to the mix, and after the publication of Op. 18 never returned to the trio again. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the string quartet was the up-and-coming genre, ousting the trio from its established position.
The violinist Jean Pougnet was both a soloist and concertmaster, who sat at the helm of the London Philharmonic 1942-45. He famously recorded the Delius concerto
with Sir Thomas Beecham. Before the war he formed a string trio with William Primrose on the viola, and Anthony Pini as cellist. Primrose was later replaced by Frederick Riddle. An early foray into the studio in 1941 resulted in a captivating recording of the Moeran String Trio, since reissued on Divine Art
. These Beethoven String Trio recordings were set down eleven years later in 1952 for Westminster.
Listening to these youthful compositions, more so the Op. 9 set, it is evident that Beethoven didn’t have the amateur player in mind. The string writing demands of the participants a level of technique and accomplishment more in the grasp of the professional.
How do the performances here stack up? Well, the players obviously have an affection for these works, and deliver readings of great technical accomplishment, and imbued with a sense of shared purpose. Imaginative phrasing, rhythmic exactitude, with sensitive control of dynamics, all add up to a level of distinction which makes these performances strong contenders for a worthy place in the catalogue. Yet, whilst these are very polished, intelligently informed and focused readings, they fall short of the heights achieved by Grumiaux and co., whose playing has an added warmth and intimacy. Nevertheless, these are committed performances from another age, and ones I would not like to be without.
The digital re-mastering from Westminster LPs is expertly carried out to the usual high standard, as has come to be the norm with this label. For chamber music lovers, these performances are well-worth seeking out.