Beethoven: Piano Quartet, Op. 16

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Piano Quartet, Op. 16; String Quintet, Op. 104; Duo for Viola & Cello in E flat (Eyeglass)
PERFORMER: Nash Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67745

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The two main works here are both arrangements of works more familiar in a different guise, and they vividly illustrate the difference between hackwork and genius.

The string quintet transcription of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 3 isn’t really his at all: he simply amended an arrangement that had been submitted to him, raising it, as he sarcastically said, ‘from the most abject misery to some degree of respectability’. The string writing is still quite awkward, but Beethoven’s fingerprints are noticeable particularly in the slow movement, where a new rhythmically alert viola part lends the final variation a delicate scherzo-like character.

The Piano Quartet is a very different affair. This is unadulterated Beethoven – his own transcription of his Op. 16 Quintet for piano and winds, with the wind instruments replaced by a string trio. Beethoven left the piano part unchanged, but he vastly improved on the original wind writing: not only did he bind the two opposing forces together much more closely, adding accompanying string contributions, but he also elaborated some of the melodic lines, allowing them greater expressive flexibility. The result deserves to be heard far more frequently, and the players of the Nash Ensemble do it proud.

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Theirs is a notably autumnal view of this early piece of Beethoven, but the performance has great warmth. The addition of a highly polished account of the Eyeglass duet by Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins makes the whole package an attractive proposition. Misha Donat