Beethoven: Piano Trio, Op. 1/1 in E flat; Piano Trio Op. 3/1 in C minor

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Analekta Fleurs de lys
WORKS: Piano Trio, Op. 1/1 in E flat; Piano Trio Op. 3/1 in C minor
PERFORMER: Gryphon Trio
CATALOGUE NO: FL 2 3170
As playing per se, this is exquisite. I don’t just mean technically, though the ensemble and tonal control can be almost breathtaking. Both performances bring out the kind of delicacy and sensuous beauty that’s often overlooked in Beethoven. Full credit to the engineering team, too, for getting a near-perfect balance between such notoriously unequal instruments, and for the warm but lucidly clear sound. But is all that enough to make a great Beethoven experience? For a while in the first movement of Op. 1/1 I thought it might be. Then the elegance, the refinement, the tastefulness of it all began to grow stale. The feline grace is lovely, but where’s the delicious feline wickedness?

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This is Beethoven de-clawed, Beethoven as the politer kind of Viennese music lovers would have liked him to behave: the peruke straightened and properly powdered, not tossed insolently on to one of the chandeliers. The piano’s improbable opening leaps in the finale of Op. 1/1 lose all their light subversive touch, as, too, does the surprise quiet ending of Op. 1/3. And where’s the nervous intensity in the outer movements of the C minor work? Going back to the 1965 Beaux Arts Trio recordings I’m struck by how much closer they get that sense of danger in Beethoven. This may still be music for the salon; the gritty heroics of the middle period may be some way off; but something wonderfully fresh and teasing emerges, despite the relatively limited recorded sound. Stephen Johnson