Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Trios: No. 3; No. 5,
Piano Trio No. 4
Daniel Sepec (vn); Jean-Guihen Queryas (vc); Andreas Staier (pf)
HARMONIA MUNDI 901955 (70:19)
Prepare to be stunned! If this is the way an audience first heard Beethoven’s C-Minor Piano Trio played in 1795 or thereabouts, the floor must have been littered with fainting bodies. That Beethoven, very early on, demonstrated his mastery of
Sturm und Drang
is hardly a secret, and certainly this very early trio is one of his “
sturmiest und drangiest
.” But the performance here by Sepec, Queryas, and Staier on period instruments will pop the corks on your champagne bottles. It amazes me how sforzandos and accents can be attacked with such savagery without ripping the instruments’ strings from their moorings. Even more amazing is how this feat can be accomplished without a hint of bow-scraping grit or grate, for this is playing of utter control and precision that is coiled tight as a cobra ready to strike. Never have I heard anything like this, whether on period instruments or modern. Is it what Beethoven intended? Who can say? Hear it for yourself and decide. But keep a paper bag handy in case you start hyperventilating.
The first of the two op. 70 trios, affectionately known as the “Ghost” for its long drawn-out
Largo assai ed espressivo,
is not really as apparitional and wraithlike as its title suggests. According to the insert note, Beethoven “borrowed the thematic material from a sketch originally made to accompany a scene for the witches in Heinrich von Collin’s libretto for the composer’s projected opera on
.” The music seems to hover in a trance-like, tenebrous state of harmonic ambiguity and irresolution, but to this listener it has never evoked images of the undead wandering the empty halls of a haunted house.
Completed and published in 1809, and very different in tone from the C-Minor Trio, the “Ghost” comes from a place in Beethoven’s later middle period during which his style was evolving in a new direction. With the exception of the slow movement that gives the trio its name, the outer movements project an exuberance and tenderness that speak of joy and contentment—perhaps love—that are far removed from the turbulent angst of the earlier work. The players here modify their approach accordingly, delivering forward pressing, robust readings of the first and third movements that are nonetheless appropriately less feral than their playing in the C-Minor work.
Competing recordings of the Beethoven trios are many; none with which I’m personally familiar, however, is with period instruments, so comparisons to this new release may not be entirely fair or even useful. Nonetheless, of the modern-instruments performances I’ve long admired are those with the Stern/Rose/Istomin, Beaux Arts, Kalichstein/Laredo/Robinson Trio, and Florestan Trios. And of these, the one that I find comes closest interpretively to Sepec, Queryas, and Staier, especially in terms of realizing the
Sturm und Drang
element, is the Florestan Trio.
If heard on its own, rather than in juxtaposition to the two Beethoven works, the fourth of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s seven piano trios published in 1815 might well be taken as the effort of a composer whose music should have been expected to have real staying power. Let us not forget that in his lifetime, Hummel was more highly regarded in some quarters than Beethoven was; listening to this piece, I find it easy to understand why. It is tuneful, has a scintillating if not quite virtuosic piano part, and falls easily on the ear without demanding that its audience grapple with difficult, unfamiliar, and challenging musical material. Yet one cannot escape the impression that with this modestly scaled piece, barely half the length of Beethoven’s 1795 C-Minor Trio, Hummel is serving up a light and tasty dessert to Beethoven’s rich and heavy main course.
Hummel’s piano trios—which, along with his piano concertos, I personally believe to contain his best work—have fewer contenders than do Beethoven’s trios. Still, there are other recordings of note. In this G-Major Trio in particular, there is a wonderful performance with Menahem Pressler (of Beaux Arts Trio fame) teamed up with Ida Kavafian and Peter Wiley.
Serious collectors will no doubt already have other versions of the three works on this disc. The playing, performances, and recording on this one, however, are quite extraordinary, earning my strongest recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
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