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Beethoven: Piano Trio Op. 70 No. 1 Ghost; Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 Op. 8

Debrus / Lienart / Inui / Beethoven / Brahms
Release Date: 03/29/2011 
Label:  Pavane   Catalog #: 7529   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes BrahmsLudwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Carlo Van Neste
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 3 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Piano Trio in D, op. 70/1, “Ghost.” BRAHMS Piano Trio No. 1 in B, op. 8 Trio Carlo Van Neste PAVANE 7529 (62:57)

Here is yet another recently formed ensemble, this one Belgian, in 2005. In its short existence, it has already seen the departure of its founding member, violinist Carlo Van Neste, who has been replaced by Noè Inui. Of the original lineup, cellist Alexandre Read more Debrus and pianist Sébastien Lienart remain. The ensemble’s website lists two other recordings besides the one at hand, an album of tangos by Piazzolla, and one of Dvo?ák’s “Dumky” Trio coupled with Smetana’s trio.

Any chamber music group, whether veteran or new to the scene, had better be in the “exceptionally good” category to offer another version of two of the most oft-recorded works in the piano trio literature. Happily, I can report that the Trio Carlo Van Neste is in that singular class.

The “Ghost” Trio takes its name from the second movement of the piece, marked Largo assai ed espressivo. At the time, Beethoven was tinkering with ideas for an opera based on Macbeth (not Hamlet , as has sometimes been erroneously stated), so it’s not far-fetched to infer that the play’s ghost scene worked its way from the composer’s impressionable imagination into the trio. For me, however, this movement has never conjured images of spectral spirits floating through the ether. In fact, I admit to experiencing a bit of impatience every time I hear it, feeling that Beethoven has pestered his point rather longer than necessary. In truth, there’s really not much here that’s new. We’ve heard this game of “dodge the resolution” from Beethoven before, albeit not at such length, in the Introduzione movement of the “Waldstein” Sonata. Diminished- seventh and melodic-tritone clichés abound in both scores, but here the “ghost” movement is augmented by sepulchral tremolos wafting up from the crypt in the cellar of the haunted house.

If I poke fun, it’s because what’s really new and different in this trio is not the slow movement that gives the work its name, but the first movement, which presents a radical reshaping or restructuring of the thematic-harmonic basis of sonata-allegro form. According to Robert Hatten of Penn State University (french.chass.utoronto.ca/as-sa/ASSA-No4/Vol2.No4.Hatten.pdf), the first movement exploits syntactical harmonic ambiguities of specific chords as a way of synthesizing thematic material so that “motives X and Y,” as Hatten puts it, “while direct contrasts on the surface, are dual perspectives from a single vantage point, that of the implied agency of the work.”

Knowledge of this is not necessary for the listener to recognize that in the realm of piano trio this is a newly minted style of expression for Beethoven. To the ear, the music gives voice to a highly energized, almost freewheeling rhapsodic, if not episodic, style of writing, with seemingly odd rhythmic parsing and a strange chromaticism introduced into the line, while beneath the covers is a new and highly sophisticated treatment of the music’s formal elements. Beethoven dedicated his two op. 70 trios to the Countess Marie von Erdödy in gratitude for her providing him temporary lodgings in her home.

The lessons of Beethoven’s later chamber works, especially with regard to the synthesis of thematic material mentioned above, were not lost on Brahms when he set out to compose his first piano trio in 1854. Only infrequently, however, do we hear the work today as Brahms originally wrote it, for 35 years later, in 1891, amusingly, as the booklet tells us, he “corrected” it, as if his revisions amounted to little more than fixing a few errors in spelling and grammar. In reality, Brahms took a hatchet to the score, virtually rewriting much of the original. For those interested, I documented the changes in a Fanfare 33:5 review of the Trio Jean Paul playing the original version.

I was relieved, and you should be too, to find that the Trio Carlo Van Neste on the current release plays the later, revised score, as do most ensembles. An interesting sidelight, however, is that the B-Major Trio, in its original form, happened to be the first work by Brahms to be performed in the U.S. It was given in New York on November 17, 1855, by American pianist William Mason, joined by violinist Theodore Thomas and cellist Carl Bergmann.

As I’ve observed on more than one occasion, when it comes to recently established string quartet and piano trio ensembles that are largely populated by young, often conservatory-trained players, it’s a given that they all have the technical grits for the job. It’s almost pointless to note their perfect intonation, clean articulation, ensemble unanimity, and professional spit and polish, because they’ve all got it; we’re fortunate, but also spoiled, for having come to expect nothing less.

Cleary, as indicated at the outset, there’s no shortage of recordings of either of the works on this disc. So, what sets the Trio Carlo Van Neste apart from any number of other recordings of this repertoire that may be equally satisfying and that you may already have? The strange answer is probably nothing tangible or objective I could point to that would promise greater gratification than what you’re likely to receive in the Beethoven from the Jupiter, Strorioni, and Florestan trios, or in the Brahms from the Poseidon, Capuçon-Angelich, and Jalina trios. But there remains a hard-to-define quality to these Trio Carlo Van Neste performances that I really like and respond to. Maybe in the Beethoven it’s the sense of exultation in the first movement and the sense of playfulness in the finale; and in the Brahms, maybe it’s the uninhibited embracing of the music’s rapturous sensuousness, its feeling of spaciousness, and its heartbreak, not to mention the observed repeat of the first movement’s expansive exposition. All of this is complemented by an open and exceptionally warm recording.

For me, this is one to keep; for you, it’s one to get.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Trio for Piano and Strings no 1 in B major, Op. 8 by Johannes Brahms
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Carlo Van Neste
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854/1889; Germany 
Date of Recording: 12/2009 
Venue:  Studio 1, Flagey (Brussels) 
Length: 35 Minutes 28 Secs. 
Trio for Piano and Strings no 5 in D major, Op. 70 no 1 "Ghost" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Carlo Van Neste
Period: Classical 
Written: 1808; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 12/2009 
Venue:  Studio 1, Flagey (Brussels) 
Length: 27 Minutes 26 Secs. 

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