'Beethoven for Three' Symphonies Nos 2 & 5

Record and Artist Details



Label: Sony Classical

Media Format: CD or Download

Media Runtime: 69



Catalogue Number: 19439 94014-2


Composition Artist Credit
Symphony No. 2 Ludwig van Beethoven, Composer
Emanuel Ax, Piano
Leonidas Kavakos, Violin
Yo-Yo Ma, Cello
Symphony No. 5 Ludwig van Beethoven, Composer
Emanuel Ax, Piano
Leonidas Kavakos, Violin
Yo-Yo Ma, Cello

Ferdinand Ries’s arrangement for piano trio of Beethoven’s Second Symphony was published in 1805, a year after the publication of the orchestral score. Its purpose, of course, was to allow music lovers to play the symphony at home – a sonically richer alternative to the more common piano-duet arrangement. Its value today is less certain. Does the transformation give us a valuable new perspective the way, say, Beethoven’s string quartet version of the Piano Sonata Op 14 No 1 does? I doubt it.

Before turning to this new account of Op 36 by Ax, Kavakos and Ma, I listened again to the Beaux Arts Trio (Philips, 3/92) and Melnikov, Faust and Queyras (Harmonia Mundi, 4/21), and to my ears it seems that both ensembles decided to put the orchestral sounds out of their heads and approach this arrangement as a piece of pure chamber music. Ax, Kavakos and Ma, on the other hand, seem to have the orchestra very much in mind, particularly in the way Ax cushions many accents and sforzandos as if to mitigate the piano’s percussive quality. That said, there’s plenty of punch where required, and despite a few bothersome details – Ax adding an unmarked crescendo in the woodwinds’ descending figure in the fourth bar of the first movement, for instance, or his jangly trill in the opening statement of the Larghetto – it’s an altogether engaging performance, though not one I’ll be returning to soon, honestly. Hearing this arrangement once every few years is more than enough for me.

As you might imagine, I wasn’t expecting to be absolutely bowled over by Colin Matthews’s arrangement of the Fifth Symphony, but I was – and still am. Perhaps it’s because the Fifth is the more texturally and structurally complex work and, despite its familiarity, contains many more unanswerable questions. In any case, I now feel I am a little closer to finding answers. Matthews has done a most impressive job of paring the music down to its essentials while retaining its character and emotional impact. In doing so, he’s been quite true to the letter of the score, but not at all in a slavish way. His decision to change the strings’ demisemiquavers to quavers in the slow movement at 7'33", for example, is a small stroke of genius, as is his adjustment of the violin line at 1'28" in the finale so it incorporates the rising figure in the violas and bassoons. Only one brief passage seems problematic to me, and that’s at 4'51" (again in the finale), where the texture thins to the point that I feel something is missing and as a result the tension slackens for just a few moments. But please don’t let this dissuade you from hearing Matthews’s arrangement.

The performance by Ax, Kavakos and Ma is not just aptly intense – the opening Allegro con brio is as involving as any orchestral performance I’ve heard – but also incredibly sensitive to the music’s crucial juxtapositions, as one can hear in the Andante con moto, where they so deftly balance delicacy and heroic swagger – note the vulnerability in Kavakos’s tone at 1'42" – in a way that I find deeply moving.

I fear that if my editor hadn’t sent this my way, I might have given this disc a miss. That would have been a very sad loss indeed.

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