Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Trios: in G,
Op. 121a, “Kakadu Variations”;
Op. 97, “Archduke”;
NAXOS 8.572343 (75: 09)
Nowhere on the album cover does Naxos identify this as Volume 5 in its continuing survey of Beethoven’s piano trios, but it is; nor would you know without purchasing the CD and reading the back page of the enclosed booklet that the three
players identified on the cover—Ida Bieler, violin; Maria Kliegel, cello; and Nina Tichman, piano—are called the Xyrion Trio, but they are.
With this volume, recorded in 2009, the ensemble, which has now committed to disc the complete standard canon of Beethoven’s piano trios, reaches the biggie, the “Archduke,” last and greatest of the composer’s works in the genre. For me, a performance of the work lives or dies by what happens in the last two minutes of the sublime
Here in measure 159 begins one of those passages in which Beethoven seems to arrest time. Over an almost hypnotic passage of triplets in the piano, the violin and cello sit on long-held notes in a drone-like repeating pattern, until, in measure 172, the cello crescendos with a swelling line that opens the gates of Heaven, and then the violin answers in a duet that’s like the singing of angels. From here to the end has to be one of the most exalted things Beethoven ever wrote and one of the most exalted moments in all of music.
There is only one thing I can say about this performance: It lives and it dwells among the Heavenly Host. Maria Kliegel swells on that note like none other I’ve heard, and Ida Bieler joins her in a chorus of beatific beauty. This may be the best “Archduke” I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a lot of them. The rest of the program is pure gravy.
The so-called “Kakadu Variations,” which was not published until 1824 with an opus number of 121a, was actually composed some 20 years earlier, circa 1803. The tune on which Beethoven based the variations—“Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu”—comes from Wenzel Müller’s comic opera,
Die Schwestern von Prag
. Approximately a third of the work’s 16 and a half minutes is taken up by a portentous-sounding G-Minor introduction, which only highlights the triviality of the theme when it finally appears. But from an equally trivial tune came Beethoven’s
, so we shouldn’t be too quick to judge the book by its cover.
Having completed its cycle of Beethoven’s numbered piano trios, the Xyrion’s players turn their attention to what might be called a mop-up operation—those few miscellaneous items for piano trio discovered among the composer’s effects that were published posthumously without opus numbers or listing in the Hess appendix. WoO 38, heard here, is believed to be Beethoven’s first attempt at a multimovement, formal piano trio. It was probably written around 1790–91, when the composer was 20 or 21. It’s a charming piece in three short movements, obviously modeled on Haydn’s piano trios.
Though I’m very familiar with cellist Maria Kliegel from many of her other excellent recordings, for some reason, I’ve not come across the Xyrion Trio’s earlier releases in this Naxos Beethoven series. But this I will tell you: Based on my hearing of the ensemble’s “Archduke” Trio alone, I intend to acquire the previous four volumes, for if the performances match the ones on the current disc, this should be one of the very best Beethoven piano trio cycles out there.
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