Beethoven: Piano Trios, Op. 1

Trio Goya
96:07 (2 CDs)
Chandos Chaconne 0822 (2)

Composed during the early 1790s, the three pianos trios that would come to be published in 1795 as his opus 1 bore a dedication to Beethoven’s patron Prince Carl Lichnowsky, who probably helped fund the enterprise. In at least one sense they make a clear statement of intent, since all three are large-scale works in four movements that set out a far more grandiose stall than the modest three-movement trios of Haydn and Mozart. Yet despite their obvious ambitious scale, in other ways they largely conform to the image of Beethoven as the darling of the Viennese salons. With the possible exception of the gruffly uncompromising opening theme of the final movement of the final C minor trio – and it is surely significant that Beethoven makes little of it in the development – there is little here of the barnstorming young Beethoven of some of the early piano sonatas. Rather the general impression given is of an often exuberant good humour juxtaposed with romantic leanings of the kind found in the innocent yearnings of the Adagio cantabile of the E flat Trio (No. 1).

It is just these qualities that are to the fore in these performances by the experienced members of the Trio Goya, Kati Debretzeni (violin), Sebastian Comberti (cello) and Maggie Cole (piano). At first I found the performances a little understated and indeed the opening of the E flat Trio is rather subdued, especially given the rather dry acoustic and lower than normal level of sound. Only a slight volume boost revealed that these are in fact exceptionally satisfying and highly musical interpretations. The balance, so much easier to obtain with an instrument of the period (a copy by Paul McNulty of an Anton Walter (c. 1795), is exemplary throughout, revealing contrapuntal passages such as the development of the opening movement of the G major Trio (No. 2) in crystalline yet never purely academic detail. For an example of sheer exuberance and wit it is necessary to point no further than the Presto finale of the same Trio, which sets off like a steeplechase with wonderfully fleet playing and barely contained excitement. Later the splendid modulatory transition back to the recapitulation is given an air of breathless expectancy, while the final coda brings just one example of exquisite pianissimo playing. There is, too, a poise about the slow movements, perhaps best exemplified by the hymn-like subject of the G major’s Largo con espressione, first heard on the piano then taken up by the cello and continued with a magically beguiling concentration that captivates the listener.

Incidentally, William Drabkin’s somewhat academic notes make the surprising point that the writing for the cello in opus 1 is ‘modest’, surprising since in fact there are a number of particularly felicitous passages for the instrument, such as the beautifully played cantabile melody at the outset of the E flat Trio’s Adagio Cantabile. I was amused to find that Maynard Solomon’s fine monograph on the composer draws precisely the opposite conclusion, drawing attention to the ‘independent and occasionally florid writing for the cello’ that abounds in the trios.

This now joins the Castle Trio (Virgin Classics) as a firm recommendation for a period instrument recording of these engaging trios.
Brian Robins