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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio in C minor Op.1 No.3 (1793) [29:57]
Piano Trio in B flat, Op.97, Archduke (1811) [43:38]
Vienna Piano Trio
rec. 2019, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster
MDG 942 2155-6 SACD [73:35]

These works bookend Beethoven’s efforts in the piano trio medium. They are Op. 1/3 together with the consummation of his efforts in this medium, the Trio written for Archduke Rudolf. In 2013, I gave a mixed reception to The European Fine Arts Trio on Guild (review). I also covered The Gould Trio in fine performances including of Op. 1/3. Their version of the “Archduke” sadly passed me by but was welcomed by Ian Lace who in his review referred to Brian Wilson’s comments on Volume 3 (review): "We're still waiting for the Gould Trio to give us the Archduke. I'm sure it will have been worth the wait". Ian concluded that the wait was worth it; all four Volumes are on Somm. For myself, the favourite versions are The Florestan Trio (Hyperion) and Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi) reviewed by David Barker who concluded: “listening intensively for the last few days to the Beethoven trios reminded me, if it was necessary, how great much of this music is, and also how sad it is that the Florestan Trio is no longer active”. Finally, on comparisons, it would be remiss of me to omit mention of The Beaux Arts Trio who traversed the oeuvre twice for Philips, now in a complete collection and the highly distinguished combination of Pierre Fournier (cello), Henryk Szeryng (violin) and Wilhelm Kempff (piano) on DG.

The Vienna Piano Trio recorded the two Op. 70 trios which Ralph Moore refers to but these don’t seem to have been reviewed by MusicWeb International to date. I see that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, The Vienna Piano Trio recorded these works for Nimbus but only the pianist Stefan Mendl remains. As Ralph Moore points out, the sound of the instruments (a 1761 Gagliano violin and a Stradivari cello from 1698) is warm and sensuous as befits this music; as usual with MDG the sound is first class. I don’t possess SACD but the recording is excellent in stereo. The Op. 1/3 is the finest of the three completed in 1793 but originally Joseph Haydn, mentoring the young protégé, advised against publication. I’m more than delighted that Beethoven ignored “Papa Haydn” and wonder, if on this rare occasion he had raised a feeling of jealousy in the older composer. After the fine opening the second movement is to my ears the key of the work and is a sublime set of variations. The minuet is given a vibrant performance before the finale which ends almost as if he was controlling a fade button. There are moments in that last movement where I was slightly concerned about intonation although it’s momentary like a fly landing on one’s hand. The Vienna Piano Trio undoubtedly give a fine performance even if I feel it must yield to other combinations including the Florestan and Trio Wanderer. Interestingly Beethoven later transcribed the Trio, with some technical difficulty for performers, for String Quintet Op. 104; a fine recording is available by the Suk Quartet on Supraphon and is referred to at length in Vikram Seth’s novel “An equal music”.

The Archduke is undoubtedly a more extensive and demanding work than the C minor Trio but perhaps surprisingly, it here receives an unforgettable and superior performance. From those magical opening chords to the development the Vienna Piano Trio are of one mind and I was completely blown away. After the intense but flowing Allegro Moderato they take us sublimely through all the highs and lows of the Scherzo. It’s a different world from such heroes of the past such as Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pré and Pinchas Zukerman in those unforgettable recordings reviewed by Terry Barfoot. They were made in just a few days in early 1970, now on Warner. Loved by myself despite some carping these days, Eugene Istomin, Leonard Rose and Isaac Stern (Sony) are certainly in that pantheon. For fuller details of comparisons of the various sets available, please refer to David Barker’s comprehensive survey. After the hymn-like intensity of the Andante Cantabile, played here with such sensitivity, the VPT break out in the lively finale with a real feeling of joie de vivre, ending an outstanding performance.

These recordings are absolutely splendid, notwithstanding a tiny reservation in Op. 1/3. The recording is thrilling and very tangible and there are fine notes by Irmland Capelle translated by I and M Berridge. It only falls to me to hope to hear Op. 70 and subsequently the other works including the “Variations”.
David R Dunsmore

Previous review: Ralph Moore

David McCarroll (violin); Clemens Hagen (cello); Stefan Mendl (piano)

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