Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trios: Volume 2
Piano Trio No. 5 in D, Op.70/1 (Geistertrio) [28:59]
Variations on Wenzel Müller’s Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu, Op.121a [17:32]
Piano Trio in G, Op.1/2 [33:09]
Trio Ex Aequo (Matthias Wollong (violin), Matthias Moosdorf (cello), Olga Gollej (piano))
rec. Bundesverwaltungsgericht, Leipzig, Germany, 2014. DDD
GENUIN GEN15344 [79:45]

This is Trio Ex Aequo’s third recording for Genuin and their second of the Beethoven Trios, so it’s looking as if they have embarked on a complete set.

We seem to have missed their first CD, containing the Archduke Trio and Op.1/3 but I streamed it from Qobuz and liked it.  It’s also available for download from in mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless sound: their US$ price works out about the same as Qobuz’s in £/Euro, but neither they nor Qobuz include the booklet.  It wouldn’t be my top choice among many excellent Archdukes: I enjoyed hearing it but the coupling competes with exactly the same from the Kempf Trio on BIS, singled out by David Barker in his survey of the Piano Trio repertoire and highly praised by Paul Shoemaker.

After the Archduke, the so-called Ghost Trio is deservedly the best-known of the series, with several fine recordings to its credit.  As with the Archduke on the earlier Genuin album, the new Ex Aequo, heard without comparison, is very good but it’s impossible to consider it in a vacuum when there are so many excellent competitors at all prices:

• DECCA VIRTUOSO 4785153: Beaux Arts Trio, recorded in 1964, with the Archduke and Gassenhauser Trios, the latter in its version with clarinet, a well-filled CD at budget price.  Their later remake is available as part of a 5-CD set Philips 4684112.  Either of these would still be my overall choice for all three works and I have used the later version as my benchmark.

• ALTO ALC1141: Trio Zingara, with the Archduke Trio, coupling the two best-known trios at super-budget price.

• HYPERION CDA67327: Florestan Trio, with Trio No.6, Op.70/2 and No.9, WoO39 – or better still as part of 4-CD set of the complete Beethoven Piano Trios, CDS44471/4

• NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6288: Petrof Piano Trio, with Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.  Reviewing this recently, I thought it not far behind the Beaux Arts Trio in Beethoven and competitive in Tchaikovsky.

You don’t even need to do a direct comparison, one after the other, to perceive the differences between the Beaux Arts and Ex Aequo Trios.  As I wrote in my review of the Petrof Trio, ‘the most noticeable difference between the Petrof and Beaux Arts Trios is the lighter touch which the latter bring to the first movement and the greater sense of spookiness which they convey in the slow movement. It’s in the slow movement, which gave the work its nickname, that the Beaux Arts really score, adding an element of fantasy to the Petrof’s very accomplished but ultimately slightly too earthbound performance’.  Substitute Ex Aequo for Petrof and that’s equally true here.

That’s perhaps overstating the matter slightly: there’s nothing over-delicate about the Beaux Arts performance, nor are the Ex Aequo players lacking in sensitivity, but the former capture the largo assai ed espressivo direction for the slow movement just a little better and, at 11:38, their tempo seems to me to be closer to the mark than the 10:33 on the new recording.  On their earlier recording the Beaux Arts captured the ethereal nature of the music at a faster speed – 10:26 – so it’s not just a matter of tempo, but the extra relaxation on the later recording suits the music even better.  I know that some think that Beethoven didn’t really intend assai to mean ‘very’, mistaking it for the French assez, but this movement really benefits from taking it at face value.

Though the Florestan Trio (Hyperion) are much faster on paper at 8:27, they nevertheless put a lot of feeling into this movement.  Though only at 24/44.1 the 24-bit download of the Hyperion recording is very good and can be yours from for an attractive price of just £7.85 (mp3 and 16-bit cost £6.99).  The box set comes in 16-bit only but at an even more attractive price from of £20.  Both include the pdf booklet.  The Florestan Trio performance of the first movement is as fluent as the Beaux Arts but misses just a little of the power of the Trio Ex Aequo.  All three performances in question adopt much the same tempo for this movement.

There’s another series of the Beethoven Piano Trios in progress, from the Gould Piano Trio on Somm.  I enjoyed their recording of theKakadu Variations, with the clarinet versions of Op.11 and WoO38 – review.  David Dunsmore liked their Op.1/3, Op.70/2 and WoO38 and Jonathan Woolf their Geister Trio, Op.1/2 and shorter works (SOMMCD0114 – review).  I see that they have just completed the 4-CD set with the Archduke, Op.1/1 and Hess 48 (SOMMCD0144).  They also take the second movement of the Geister Trio at a fast tempo – 9:40 – without sounding too hurried.

Without wishing to downplay the other two trios here, there’s less difference between the various interpretations.  The Kakadu Variations perhaps need to sound a little more humorous than they do on the new recording, but I’ve never thought them quite as amusing as many seem to find them.

The Op.1 trios were effectively Beethoven’s calling-card to Vienna, though still very much in the manner of Haydn.  When all three Op.1 trios were first performed together Haydn was the guest of honour.  Perhaps because he thought the style too like his own music and also because he had only just returned from London and felt over-tired, Haydn suggested that No.3 in particular needed more work.  End of relationship: though Beethoven dedicated Op.2 to Haydn, he later suggested that he had learned more from Salieri than from Haydn.   Perhaps if Haydn had heard a performance as fluent as that offered on this new Genuin recording he might have thought and said otherwise.

The recording is good, even by comparison with the Hyperion 24-bit download.  There doesn’t seem to be a 24-bit download of the Genuin recording, though offer the earlier volume (GEN12217) in mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless: the 24-bit costs $18.81 which is somewhat pricey for a download without a booklet.

The new Genuin booklet is printed on such thick paper that it’s almost impossible to slide it out of the jewel box without crumpling some of the pages.  The English translation of Matthias Wollong’s notes is decidedly odd in places: ‘In his later years Beethoven did not publish any more series of works’.  It turns out that the original is just as odd: ‘In spätern Jahren gab Beethoven keine Serien mehr hinaus.’  What about the late quartets and piano sonatas?

I could have been perfectly happy with this CD if I hadn’t done the comparisons which occasioned small reservations.  They are, however, small enough not to spoil my enjoyment and you need not take note of them if this particular coupling appeals.  Overall, however, it still seems to me that the Beaux Arts Trio on both of their recordings get the most out of the Beethoven Trios.

Brian Wilson

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