BEETHOVEN Complete Piano Trios

Complete trios to mark the Wanderer’s quarter-century

Author: 
Harriet Smith

BEETHOVEN Complete Piano Trios

  • Piano Trios, No. 1 in E flat, Op. 1/1
  • Piano Trios, No. 2 in G, Op. 1/2
  • Piano Trios, No. 3 in C minor, Op. 1/3
  • Piano Trios, No. 4 in B flat, Op. 11 (clarinet (or violin), piano and cello)
  • Piano Trios, No. 5 in D, Op. 70/1, 'Ghost'
  • Piano Trios, No. 6 in E flat, Op. 70/2
  • Piano Trios, No. 7 in B flat, Op. 97, 'Archduke'
  • Piano Trios, No. 8 in E flat, WoO38
  • Piano Trios, No. 9 in B flat, WoO39
  • Piano Trios, No. 11 in G, Op. 121a (Kakadu Variations)
  • Piano Trios, No. 12 in E flat, Hess 48

This is the Trio Wanderer’s 25th-birthday present to itself, and within the slimline package lie riches indeed. We begin with Op 1, the point at which Beethoven announced his presence to the wider world in a genre carefully chosen so as to avoid immediate comparison with Haydn or Mozart (which would have been the case with the piano sonata, string quartet or symphony). It was also a canny financial move, for the amateur trio market was booming.

The Wanderer are particularly impressive in this opus, capturing the puppyish energy with which No 1 opens and imbuing its slow movement with an affection that is almost unassuming: pitched just right for early Beethoven. Time and again we’re reminded that this is an ensemble who have no need for point-making, either to their audience or to one another, trusting the music to make its own impact. And what an impact. We experience anew the ducking and diving ebullience of the finale of the First Trio, the sheer inventiveness of the Presto of No 2 – with its razor-sharp accentuation precise and the phrasing-off of the violin line startling – and the dizzying Prestissimo conclusion to No 3.

Beethoven has learnt from his erstwhile teacher, but the influence is confidently transformed into something all his own. And though the piano-writing in these trios is overtly virtuoso, it never threatens to overbalance the other two lines, thanks to the Wanderer’s finely attuned collective ear.

Equally compelling is their understanding of the depth of the writing: the extraordinarily profound slow movement of No 2 (which they judge better than the Beaux Arts, who are just too slow here) or the mysterious opening to the great C minor Trio, No 3, though the period-instrument Staier/Sepec/Queyras recording is even more dramatic.

Among the other early works, the Wanderer’s reading of the Allegretto, WoO39, doesn’t charm quite as much as the Florestan in their benchmark set. But in WoO38 they relish the Haydnesque Scherzo to the full. The Kakadu Variations are also fundamentally early, with Beethoven adding a slow introduction and coda much later. Although he was a master of transforming the musical graffiti of others into great art, here he contents himself with sending up Wenzel Müller’s theme, promising much in the deeply serious introduction, only for the theme itself to arrive as a huge anticlimax. Trio Wanderer convey Beethoven’s intentional bathos perfectly.

And as we travel with them, the plaudits just continue. The Wanderer revel in Op 11’s easeful qualities and delight in the inventiveness of the variations that close the trio. Delight is on show in the Op 44 Variations too, another opportunity for Beethoven to dabble in the commonplace.

Throughout the set, we’re in the surest of hands and the Wanderer are keen to point up the gentler side of Beethoven’s character as well as exploring his redoubtable dramatic genius. Occasionally I found myself hankering after a greater sense of mystery: in the Largo assai of the Ghost, the other-worldly aspect is arguably revealed more tellingly by the Florestan and the plangently timbred Staier/Sepec/Queyras trio, though the unfettered, almost unhinged energy of the finale is wonderfully caught by the Wanderer. And at the moment where the theme of the slow movement of the Archduke is revealed, they miss the last degree of rapture (though they avoid the pitfalls of too slow a tempo, a trap into which the Beaux Arts fall). To experience that intensity to the full, you need to go back in time: to Thibaud, Casals and Cortot or to Zukerman, du Pré and Barenboim. That said, the Wanderer are again wonderfully natural in the sprint to the finishing line in the Presto of the same work’s finale. And let’s not overlook Op 70 No 2, the Ghost’s convivial sibling, where the Wanderer relish the brilliantly wrought double-variation Allegretto, the insouciance of the major key set against a driving C minor, while the energy and concerto-ish spotlighting of the finale reminds us that here we have not only one of the finest trios around today but also three remarkable personalities in their own right. Harmonia Mundi complete the pleasure with perceptive notes and a recording that combines warmth and clarity.

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