Beaux Arts Trio: 1967-1974
Throughout this bumper selection from the Beaux Arts’ vast discography I was reminded of their ability to encompass every aspect of Romantic music. The group are just as convincing with Tchaikovsky’s big emotions as they are with the intimate meditative world of the slow movement of Schumann’s Op 80.
The two Mendelssohn trios feature the Beaux Arts’ original line-up, with Daniel Guilet’s elegant, clear-toned violin playing. In the outer movements of the D minor Trio the many passages of continuous piano passagework, instead of being reduced to simply the medium in which the tunes swim along, as so often happens, are here given shape through Menahem Pressler’s uncommonly expressive touch, resulting in performances that are unusually dramatic. The scherzos in both trios are marvels of delicacy and precision, with Guilet and Greenhouse demonstrating sparkling, carefree spiccato bowing. And if the C minor Trio’s first movement lacks something of Mendelssohn’s con fuoco designation, the Beaux Arts more than make up for it in the finale – the grand re-entry of the chorale melody (The ‘Old Hundredth’) has just the inspiring, cumulative effect the composer must have intended.
The way Pressler introduces the two Mendelssohn Andantes made me think how beautiful the Songs without Words would sound in his hands. His way with Schumann and Chopin is similarly idiomatic and persuasive, playing the virtuosic episodes in the Chopin fluently, with beautifully balanced tone, and reserving a harder, more brittle sound for a few climactic moments. The finale, for instance, begins in a subdued, rather melancholic way, so that the more animated music later on is all the more effective. And in this work, apparently dominated by the piano, Greenhouse and Cohen show how fine Chopin’s writing for strings is, especially in the Adagio, with its long Italianate melodies.
Schumann’s style of trio writing, favouring warm, blended sonorities, benefits from the sound of Isidore Cohen’s violin, with its more soft-edged quality, and all three artists play so well together that the frequent doublings between piano and strings always sound lively and positive. In particular, the performance of the D minor Trio makes a powerful case for the work to be regarded as one of Schumann’s finest, the syncopations in the first movement animating a dark, passionate discourse that sweeps relentlessly forward. There are marvellous things in the other two Schumann trios, and it’s a revelation to hear such a splendid account of the Clara Schumann, a work that’s more classical in outlook than Robert’s chamber music, but full of original, romantic touches. The group’s flexible, expressively moulded style helps them to follow Clara’s often unpredictable turns of harmony, emphasising them to just the right degree.
A principal quality of Smetana’s early masterpiece, written as an elegy following the death of his young daughter, is its direct, uninhibited emotional expression, which this performance embraces wholeheartedly. The players’ uncanny control of tone and dynamics makes it possible for them to avoid sounds and gestures that would be too crudely melodramatic, while more intimate passages – such as the scherzo-like second movement’s first alternativo, or the finale’s second subject – have a warm, heart-on-sleeve expressiveness that’s deeply touching.
Tchaikovsky pushes the boundaries of chamber music further than Smetana, demanding large-scale, concerto-style projection. But, maybe because the recorded sound (though well balanced) isn’t as spacious as for some more recent recordings, the Beaux Arts version tends to emphasise intimate detail above grand, pseudo-orchestral effects. The big climaxes are played for all they’re worth, but with refinement, so that even in the most intense passages we’re aware of small inflexions and changing tones of voice. It’s a great shame, though, that the Beaux Arts choose to omit one of the second movement’s variations.
The Ives gets an extremely persuasive performance, even if one feels that some of the jagged edges in the first and last movements have been smoothed off. The middle movement, (‘T.S.I.A.J.’, explained in a footnote as ‘This Scherzo Is A Joke’), done with amazing panache and exactness, is a masterpiece of surreal comedy. The Shostakovich isn’t an entirely idiomatic account (the Beaux Arts don’t always manage to tone down their habitual warmth), but has some extraordinary moments – a ferociously fast second movement, and a climax in the finale that’s built up with a gradual, inexorable rise in tension.
If you have these CDs on your shelf, you’ll want to return to them again and again, I promise.