BEETHOVEN Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano, “Triple1.” BRAHMS Concerto for Violin and Cello, “Double2” • Neeme Järvi, cond; 1Trio Poseidon; 2Sara Trobäck Hesselink (vn); 2Read more class="ARIAL12">Claes Gunnarsson (vc); Gothenburg SO • CHANDOS 10564 (69:41)
Every so often a new recording comes along that is so exceptional it deserves immediate induction into the Classical Hall of Fame. This is such a recording.
Let me begin with what is not unprecedented. Established piano trio ensembles—the Beaux Arts, Eroica, and Wanderer, among them—have taken on the solo roles in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto before. Also not uncommon, though not recent, is the coupling of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Brahms’s Double Concerto on the same disc. There is one with the Menuhins (Yehudi and Hepzibah) and Maurice Gendron; one with Oistrakh, Rostropovich, and Richter; one with Pinchas Zukerman, Ralph Kirshbaum, and John Browning; and another with Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Pierre Fournier, and Géza Anda. But beyond the coupling and fantastic performances by members of a piano trio, what elevates the current release into the very special category are (1) Neeme Järvi’s unerring instincts for unraveling the Gordian knots of these problematical scores; (2) the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s inspired playing; and (3) a recording that even by Chandos’s standards is more vivid and in-your-living-room than usual.
It’s always gratifying to a critic to have a prediction pan out. Back in Fanfare 30:5, in a review of the Trio Poseidon’s debut disc in a program of Haydn, Brahms, and Ireland, I observed that the ensemble’s tone was “opulent, its playing appropriately passionate and refulgent,” and that its new entry was “one of the best among the best.” In this, its second album, and now on a mainstream, widely distributed label, the ensemble has not let me down. The sheer dynamism, vigor, and panache the players project, especially in the Beethoven, leave all others I’ve heard sounding disengaged and half alive. The Poseidons manage to integrate themselves with the orchestra, yet always somehow to emerge on top of it. The recording, of course, helps, so that even when the orchestra is at full throttle, the soloists can be heard cutting through and ringing out.
This is welcome news in two concertos that are not exactly orchestra-friendly to the soloists. Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is an odd thing, a hybrid of sorts in both style and form. Stylistically, it may represent the emergence of a true concerted work for multiple solo instruments that breaks away from the concertato principle of the Sinfonia Concertante, while formally, it’s a transitional work dating from approximately the same time (1803–04) as the “Waldstein” Sonata, and that experiments with the same “formless” slow movement that serves as an introduction to the finale.
But it’s the musical material itself, the content of the piece more than anything else, that is seen as the Triple Concerto’s greatest liability, and what has led many to try to ignore it as the elephant in the room. Ceaseless scales and arpeggios pepper the pages of its first movement, often sounding like a blueprint for Terry Riley’s In C. The slow movement, achingly beautiful but way too short, segues into the concluding rollicking Rondo, which is way too long, without having achieved a sense of completion or closure.
In many if not most performances, much of the soloists’ contributions are lost in the general melee, for in this, perhaps more so than in any of his other concertos, Beethoven writes in a symphonic manner, treating the solo voices as obbligato parts. In other words, there are not a lot of distinct solo passages in which the orchestral din subsides to allow the soloists their moments in the sun. Which is why, as I said above, the Poseidon’s performance, and this recording, are special because they allow us to hear cutting through the orchestra what really are some very important counter-melodies and passagework in the solo parts. And suddenly, the piece no longer sounds like the cacophony of scales that greets the ears coming from countless practice rooms as one strolls down the corridor of a music conservatory.
Brahms’s “folly” of a Double Concerto presents its own set of challenges. No one would ever accuse the composer of not writing for orchestra in a symphonic manner, unless the charge was lodged against his early serenades, so that is not even worth citing as a fault. No, a more serious complaint is that a lot of the piece seems to make little or no sense. Brahms was perhaps the most circumspect and self-critical of all the great composers. An apocryphal story has it that every night he would relax and visit with friends at a local pub. On one such occasion, he was asked, “So what did you do today, Herr Brahms?” To which he replied, “I worked on my symphony. In the morning I added an eighth note; in the afternoon, I took it out.” The problem with the Double Concerto seems to be that he took out too many notes, or didn’t put enough in to begin with. The music is choppy and cryptic, with sudden stops midsentence, and paragraphs seemingly butted up against each other without transition, like enormous granite slabs upended and slammed together by some frightful tectonic force.
Of three recent Brahms Doubles I’ve reviewed, only one, a dark horse with Mihaela Martin and Frans Helmerson on Arte Nova (Fanfare 31: 6), earned high marks. A recording with the Capuçon sibs, Renaud and Gautier (31:5), which I’d really looked forward to, turned out to have some serious intonation problems and scrappy playing. And the one with Vadim Repin and Truls Mørk (32:6), while superbly played, displayed signs of a skewed balance that diminished the presence of the violin.
On the present recording, once again, Järvi, the Gothenburg Orchestra, and Chandos do everything right. And Hesselink and Gunnarsson, the string component that makes up two-thirds of the Trio Poseidon, are so beyond any technical struggle to just play the notes that they’re able to invest their playing with a real sense of the lyrical line, making song of one of Brahms’s least songful works.
This recording is truly a five-gold-star achievement, and one that I don’t expect to be matched anytime soon. This is a must-have recommendation.
Artistic insight, poignancy and exciting performance values.
My earliest days with classical music - a mission that continues - were marked by a series of discoveries: delights and disasters, fascination and revulsion or indifference. A friend at college introduced me to classical music via his collection of LPs of Stravinsky, Janacek, Martinu, Sibelius and Vaughan Williams. In parallel I was listening to BBC Radio 3 and adding mainstream classical-romantic works. Radio and TV drama serials - which in those days (1960s and 1970s) made plentiful use of classical music - also left their mark. I heard the Beethoven Triple Concerto one day and was quite bowled over by it. I am fairly sure it was the classic Karajan, Oistrakh, Richter, Rostropovich on EMI. I read that it was amongst the more modest of the Beethoven scores but it quickly took hold of my affections well beyond the grip of the symphonies.
It was much the same with the Brahms Double Concerto though its mastery is more acknowledged among the four symphonies than Beethoven’s Triple among the Nine. With the Brahms Double revelation came via the Stern/Rose/Ormandy recording on CBS rather than the sanctified Oistrakh/Rostropovich/Szell on EMI. I revelled in Rose’s sumptuous no holds-barred-tone which flowed like a warming wave. No doubt the effect was accentuated by microphone array decisions but that was of no concern. The Stern/Rose/Ormandy was part of a box of 3 Brahms LPs where CBS had shoe-horned the Double with Stern’s Violin Concerto and Serkin’s two piano concertos. The CBS version of the Double rather spoilt me for later versions so when I snapped up a cassette (remember those) of some 1959 recordings of Brahms Double (Galliera Philharmonia Oistrakh Fournier) and Beethoven Triple (Sargent, Philharmonia, Oistrakh, Oborin, Knushevitsky) TC-EMX2035 I was disappointed. It was all too uniform, civilised and collegiate.
I wondered, when I picked up this disc, whether I was in for the same experience. Not a bit of it. This new recording is a joyous affair. From it the allegedly modest Beethoven rises above its reputation and the Brahms stands proud. It differs from my early reference versions in that the soloists have for years played as part of the Poseidon Trio and therefore know each other from the sustained intimacy of chamber music playing. Their musical equivalent of conversation, symposium and badinage benefits from that familiarity with each other and is not dissipated by the interaction with an orchestra. Interestingly the Brahms has had to wait six years before release and the Beethoven three years. The Chandos team have clearly bided their time before having the effrontery to challenge the other majors. Their decision was well made. Just because the names of the soloists are not internationally known is no reason to pass this by. You will lose out if you do. In terms of modern sound blended with artistic insight, poignancy and exciting performance values this is a version to have. That the recordings were made from live concerts creates no problems at all. The Brahms may not have quite the scorching calorific value of the Rose and Stern on CBS-Sony but it is not far off. The Beethoven has rarely if ever sounded as good - try the Polacca finale. Congratulations all-round. This deserves to do very well indeed.