Beethoven Complete Piano Trios
These three medium-price discs omit all the works without opus numbers rescued by Perlman/Harrell/Ashkenazy in their full-price four-disc set, as well as the piano-trio arrangements of the Septet and Symphony No. 2 which swelled the Beaux Arts medium-price issue to five discs. What we get are the six 'standard' trios comprising Opp. 1, 70 and 97 plus the optional violin version of the Clarinet Trio, Op. 11 and the two sets of Variations for piano trio, in predominantly urgent, assertive performances recorded with a bright, forward clarity in the Teldec studio in Berlin between May 1990 and June 1992.
Of the three early Op. 1 Trios, I thought the Fontenay most in their element in the highly-charged con brio of No. 3, though even here I questioned the speed at which they despatch the finale as much as I did their piu mosso response to Beethoven's piu andante marking for the fifth variation in the otherwise pleasantly sung Andante cantabile. Though Nos. 1 and 2 include much that is light, crisp and fresh, again the Fontenay dash through both finales as if far more concerned to demonstrate their own streamlined virtuosity than to savour the music's Haydnesque wit and charm. Again, the slow movement of No. 1 is nicely sung, but they don't allow themselves time to squeeze the full con espressione out of the Largo of No. 2, particularly its romantically appealing second subject.
Exposition repeats, omitted in the early works, are wisely observed in the later trios of Opp. 70 and 97. The outer movements of the Ghost respond well to the Fontenay's forceful drive and tautly sprung rhythm; the central Largo (1'40'' faster than in a recently reissued Casals version—see above) brings some sensitive shading from the strings, although the piano tone could often be more mysteriously veiled. They adjust themselves to the urbanity and gracious lyricism of Op. 70 No. 2 more readily than I had anticipated, and for the most part are mellow enough in the Archduke's opening movement. However, I disliked their insistent, even aggressive-sounding accentuation (especially from a piano unpleasantly hard-toned above a certain dynamic level) in the Scherzo and in a finale that is more domineering in its vitality than exuberant. The big disappointment for me was nevertheless the slow movement (again fastish) where these players over-react to this or that dynamic contrast in the variations (and not least in over-excitable triplet figuration) in a way that militates against the music's deep inner calm. In fact, after performances from the 'older-world' Casals and colleagues and the Solomon Trio (see below) that have recently come my way, this movement from the Fontenay struck me as wholly immature.
There is plenty to enjoy from them in the more extrovert world of the Kakadu (Op. 121a) and E flat major (Op. 44) Variations, likewise in the engaging set with which Beethoven ends the so-called 'Gassenhauer' Trio, Op. 11. Indeed their quick-witted teamwork, no less than their often breathtaking individual brilliance, is never in doubt throughout all three discs. Nevertheless, for riper insights into Beethoven's music for piano trio I would strongly advise readers to stick to 'older-world' artists, not forgetting the Beaux Arts and Borodin Trios, the mid-price Zukerman/Du Pre/Barenboim and Stern/Rose/Istomin—or last but not least Perlman/Harrell/Ashkenazy who remain my own favourites. And I say this with regret, as I've so wholeheartedly admired what I've heard from the Fontenay before.'