WORKS: Piano Trio in D, Op. 70/1 (Ghost); Piano Trio in B flat, Op. 97 (Archduke)
PERFORMER: Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano), Vera Beths (violin), Anner Bylsma (cello)
CATALOGUE NO: SK 51353
Our understanding of Beethoven’s orchestral sound has been transformed by period instruments. So why hasn’t the same thing happened to the chamber music? Perhaps because the benefits (especially when it comes to solo strings and piano) are more mixed. Jos van Immerseel’s early 19th-century fortepiano is often refreshingly clear and agile in these two trios – shame about the clattery tone and lack of sustaining power. Vera Beths and Anner Bylsma get a wide range of colour and expression from their gut-strung violin and cello, but the sound is far less reliable – often scratchy or greasy. In an orchestra it can be camouflaged; in chamber music it’s directly exposed, especially when the players are relatively sparing with vibrato (as here).
The biggest gain is the balance between the strings and fortepiano. A modern concert grand can easily overpower the strings; in these performances every detail emerges clearly, yet Jos van Immerseel never sounds as though he’s having to rein himself in – when the writing demands, he throws himself into it. In general performance terms, it’s the Ghost Trio that comes across best here. The first movement crackles with energy, and there are passages where the famously spooky slow movement positively glowers. But it’s never very long before the limitations of the instruments start to grate on the ear – especially in the Archduke. It’s a beautifully paced performance (the Andante not too slow) with wit, humour and pathos, just not always very pleasant to hear – and the hard-toned recording doesn’t help. The Beaux Arts Trio’s 1965 versions (available on a mid-price three-CD set including all Beethoven’s piano trios) may not have quite the freshness and risk-taking energy of Beths-Bylsma-van Immerseel at their best, but they’re a much safer all-round recommendation, especially in the Archduke. Stephen Johnson