Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Trios (Complete)
BRILLIANT 94327 (5 CDs: 355:13)
Here, for all piano trio aficionados, is the complete-complete
of Beethoven in that genre. This set includes not only all the opus-numbered trios, not only the “Kakadu” Variations and Variations on an Original Theme, op. 44, but also both trios without opus numbers (including the obscure
48) and trio reductions of other works: the Second Symphony, the famous Septet, and the String Quintet, op. 4. In short, if you like Beethoven in a piano trio mode, this set is heaven for you.
Moreover, Brilliant Classics has really lucked out with Trio Élégiaque. Its members are all laureates of major international competitions: violinist Laurent Le Flécheur, pianist François Dumont, and cellist Virginie Constant. The liner notes tell us that they had “several meetings with members of the Beaux Arts Trio, Amadeus, and Alban Berg Quartets” which helped them formulate their style of playing chamber music. The result is a group very much like Beaux Arts, certainly a lot like the original Beaux Arts when they had the sweet-toned, elegant violinist Daniel Guilet heading the group. Trio Élégiaque practically oozes French elegance and charm, particularly violinist Le Flécher, whose tone and technique reminded me not only of Guilet but also of Jacques Thibaud, and pianist Dumont, whose light but rhythmically propulsive playing recalls any number of outstanding French pianists. These qualities find their way not only into the mature works, but also into the early ones. The op. 1/2 Trio that opens disc one is a perfect case in point: Their mellifluous reading of the opening
practically floats on a cloud. At first, I heard this as a possible danger point for the set—I hoped they would not
light and airy even when the music turned more dramatic—but I shouldn’t have worried. Though this trio will not erase memories of Thibaud-Cortot-Casals, they share with that legendary group a penchant for bringing more out of the music that is apparent in the printed page. True, their style leans more towards coaxing sounds out of their instruments rather than the kind of deep drama that Cortot and especially Casals were capable of, but it’s not at all bland playing. On the contrary, one stays mentally tuned in to them because their playing is so subtle—until they pull out the stops, as in the Finale of the op. 1/2, where they take off like birds riding a jet stream.
And just listen to the way they tear into the opening movement of the “Ghost” Trio! Even Yehudi Menuhin, playing with his sister Hepzibah and cellist Maurice Eisenberg, didn’t take it at this blistering a speed. Yet Trio Élégiaque loses nothing in terms of elegance, instrumental control, or dynamics; on the contrary, it’s all there, just spun out at a pace that takes your breath away—as it should. Nor does this Trio slough off the early trios: Listen to the way they manage to bring out Beethoven’s peculiarly galumphing humor in the E? Trio WoO 38.
I was particularly fascinated by Dumont’s style. Unlike many Beethoven pianists, his playing isn’t “dynamic” in the sense that the music explodes from his fingers. Rather, he produces an excellent legato by means of connected, pearl-like notes that almost emerge from the keyboard as if they were played on the vibes. At times, he creates an almost shimmering sound; at others, a crisp, clean articulation that accents no particular notes in his scale-runs yet somehow manages to make the entire scale-run sound dynamic via subtle crescendos that encompass the whole of each passage.
I’m not a fan of transcriptions, even when the composer himself does them, unless they have some interesting features about them (new textures, different balances, etc.). Consequently, I can’t say that I looked forward to hearing these trio transcriptions of the Symphony No. 2, String Quintet, op. 4, or the Septet. The Trio plays them very well, with verve and charm, but not with enough of the peasant humor Beethoven put into the first and third of them. (I might add that neither this transcription nor the original String Quintet is particularly interesting as music.) Thus I found them to be good but not revelatory. Also, after nearly a century of recordings, it’s hard to find anything new (or revelatory) to say with the “Archduke” Trio. This performance focuses on the music’s refinement of ideas, something new for Beethoven at this particular time, and thus comes across as a good reading without exactly stealing one’s breath away.
I did, however, find myself caught up in their brilliant performance of the op. 11 Trio, titled “Gassenhauer,” and it was indeed a gasser! They also have fun with the variations on
I am the tailor Kakadu
. As for the trio arrangement of the Septet, I’m sorry, but it’s just too empty-sounding. Not enough “voices,” and I don’t want to hear the Scherzo there played on a cello. I want to hear a horn.
All in all, however, this is a remarkably good set. Don’t mind my quibbles; they may not be yours. Where it really matters, in the early and little-known pieces, Trio Élégiaque is simply splendid.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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