Beethoven Complete Piano Trios

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COMPOSERS: Ludwig van Beethoven
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven Complete Piano Trios
WORKS: Piano Trios Nos 1-12
PERFORMER: Trio Wanderer
CATALOGUE NO: 4684112

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Even more than with their Schubert, Trio Wanderer’s perspective on Beethoven is so fresh it’s almost disconcerting. The prevailing impressions are of delicacy, beauty of tone and a spirited playfulness that’s often eclipsed when performers go all out for high seriousness. Rarely has the C minor Trio sounded less tragic and more lyrical and impish. Sometimes this is convincing. The major-minor contrasts in the second movement of Op. 70 No. 2 are handled beautifully. The teasing finale of the Ghost Trio, is a delight. And the Wanderers make a good case for the version of Op. 11 No. 1 with violin (instead of the more familiar clarinet); you’d think this must be how Beethoven first conceived it. In the famous Archduke, the prevailing impression is of gently affectionate, quick-witted, intimate discourse, making the Scherzo memorable.

But however valuable it is to be reminded that Beethoven isn’t all gruffness, imposing grandeur and heaven-storming intensity, it is decidedly odd to find those qualities so little in evidence on this recording. If there’s passion here, it’s of the intellectual, rather than the physical kind. Despite the Trio Wanderer’s strong sense of the long line, and of the role rhythm plays in powering the argument, this is a Beethoven of subtle frissons rather than thrills. It’s the imaginative brilliance of the writing that stands out in the slow movement of the Ghost, but there’s little sense of a darker presence in the background. The slow movement of the Archduke glides serenely from variation to variation, but I don’t get much sense of an emotional exploration. I’m glad I’ve heard these beautifully recorded performances. They’ve opened up vistas on this music I’ve barely glimpsed before. But as an overall view of Beethoven, this is just too – in both senses of the word – partial.

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Stephen Johnson