Celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth, Sony Music Entertainment presents four major reissues devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven in its series of Classical Masters. Among the treasures in these new budget-priced sets are the complete symphonies, string quartets and violin sonatas performed by illustrious musicians of the past century.
Included in this batch is a widely varied 5-CD box of chamber music, recorded in the 1990s by two outstanding period-instrument ensembles. L’Archibudelli, performing on gut strings, are heard in Beethoven’s 3 Trios, op. 9, where “the playing could scarcely be more sprightly and volatile … They communicate their own relish of the music” (Gramophone), as well as in the famous “Ghost” and “Archduke” Piano Trios – with noted fortepianist Jos van Immerseel – and numerous lesser-known yet fascinating works. The American wind ensemble Mozzafiato is directed by the outstanding clarinettist Charles Neidich. Their single disc features the Octet op. 103, in which Gramophone praised the group’s “robust, full-bodied tone-quality … The oboe and bassoon solos which open the Andante second movement sound heavenly; the Minuet and Trio is cheerfully witty … and, in the Rondino, WoO 25, they deliciously reveal the music’s textural diversity.” In the Sextet op. 71, “Neidich’s clarinet playing, in particular, is absolutely stupendous … and his mellifluous virtuosity … is well matched by the other performers to demonstrate this group’s fine soloist skills as well as their strong corporate identity. Enchanting performances of the March, WoO 29 and the Duo for clarinet and bassoon, WoO 27 No. 1 complete Mozzafiato’s delightful and immensely enjoyable concert.”
Reviews of some the original recordings that make up this set:
Beethoven composed the Octet, Op. 103 and Rondino, WoO25 sometime around 1792 and, although it was published separately, there is evidence to suggest that the Rondino was originally intended as the fourth movement of a five-movement work. Such is the view taken by the Classical Winds (Amon Ra) whose interpretation sounds convincing in a performance that effectively balances the music's emotional moods. By contrast, Mozzafiato play the Rondino after the Octet, suggesting that the Presto finale was written to replace the Rondino.
Both groups play on period instruments, but Mozzafiato's robust, full-bodied tone-quality creates a warmer, more broadly conceived result than the Classical Winds' hard, incisive edge: the oboe and bassoon solos which open the Andante second movement sound heavenly; the Minuet and Trio is cheerfully witty; a more flexible approach to the Presto finale produces a heightened dramatic effect and, in the Rondino, they deliciously reveal the music's textural diversity.
The differences between these two groups are even more pronounced in the Sextet, Op. 71. The Classical Winds' raw-edged tone and a tendency to slightly slower tempos give their version arelatively static quality in comparison to Mozzafiato's youthful freshness. Neidich's clarinet playing, in particular, is absolutely stupendous in this piece and his mellifluous virtuosity, especially in the faster outer movements, is well matched by the other performers to demonstrate this group's fine soloist skills as well as their strong corporate identity. Enchanting performances of the March, WoO29 and the Duo for clarinet and bassoon, WoO27 No. 1 complete Mozzafiato's delightful and immensely enjoyable concert.
The name explains all: archi is the Italian for bows and budella for gut strings. Centred around Anner Bylsma, this is an ensemble with "a special love for historical stringed instruments" so the booklet tells us, with the additional information that Bylsma himself plays a Gianfrancesco Pressenda cello of 1835 alongside the 1727 Stradivari violin of Vera Beths and the 1785 William Forster viola of Jürgen Kussmaul. Their distinctive, slightly reedy timbre certainly takes you back in imagination to days of yore when string trios were more often heard in stately homes than in large concert-halls.
Just in case any reader at this point might be fearing bespectacled pedantry, let me hasten to say that the playing could scarcely be more sprightly and volatile. At times I even wondered if these artists were over-immediate in response to every passing dot, dash and dynamic nuance. Now and again I felt Beethoven needed less impressionably malleable, more firmly drawn, classical lines. But that said, they communicate their own relish of the music enough to make nonsense of the charge that he was 'unenthusiastic' about the string trio medium. Once again—as with the splendid Mutter/Giuranna/Rostropovich 1989 DG recording of the complete trios—I found myself thinking that even if nothing else had come from his pen but these early works, he would still have been hailed as a genius.
As in Beethoven's even earlier set of piano trios, so again here it is the third in C minor that most clearly pre-echoes things to come. The players convey its urgency through very brisk tempos, strong dynamic contrast and pungent accentuation as well as warming to the slow movement's fuller texture enough to explain why after this work Beethoven did in fact move on to the sphere of the string quartet. The first G major Trio, in contrast, is all light and joy—despite the bite of their accents. But busy figuration from the lower strings in the course of the finale is allowed to sound scrub-brushy as well as bottom-heavy. In the suaver No, 2 in D, I thought the third movement too fast for a Menuetto, with insufficient rhythmic definition behind its teasing opening phrase (the latter is also true of the equally teasing last two bars of the finale's leading theme). But this movement, and even more the Andante, allows us to enjoy Bylsma's cello as never before. The recorded tone is forward but true.
-- Joan Chissell, Gramophone [9/1992]