Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Early Beethoven with the right touch

I really enjoyed the third volume in TrioVanBeethoven's complete Piano Trios series from Gramola, which came out just last summer.  Here we have the fourth disc, in a format similar to the first and third releases: a Trio from Beethoven's ground-breaking Opus 1, another Trio from later in his career, and a filler to round things out. This program has a major plus: the C minor is my favourite, and probably the best, of the three op. 1 trios written in 1793. On the other hand, we've run out of mature works (one of each of the two op. 70 works and the Archduke, op. 97 highlighted the first three discs), so we have to make do with the piano trio version of op. 11, written in 1797. This is a pleasant piece written in an unusually accessible style, but it's hardly a great work. And finally, the Variations op. 44, in spite of the late opus number, are from earlier in Beethoven's career, probably written before his op. 1. "It is not the desire for fame", says Marcel Proust, "but the habit for work that allows us to produce a masterpiece." Fame came to Beethoven with op. 1, and that was something that he dearly sought. But it would be a few years before the true masterpieces came. Luckily for us, Beethoven was his era's version of "the world's hardest working band."

The thing I liked best about TrioVanBeethoven's previous releases is their light touch when it comes to the op. 1 trios. One cannot take the drama in these works entirely at face value; a musical grin here and there keeps things from getting too fraught. Here we have a composer whose reach exceeds his grasp. As Browning says, "that's what heaven's for," and heaven was to come soon enough for Beethoven. But the musical experience improves when there's some (but not too much) detachment from the players. Oddly, things are reversed in op. 11, in which Beethoven writes down a bit to his audience, or to his publisher's idea of what his audience wanted. This is rarely a good idea for any artist, and it's a rare occurrence for Beethoven, but there's no harm done. We have pleasant tunes and a certain amount of charm, and again the three young musicians of TrioVanBeethoven have judged their playing just right. Incidentally, as much as I love the clarinet, I've always preferred the piano and strings version of op. 11, perhaps because one is less likely to compare it with Mozart.

So the series comes to an end. TrioVanBeethoven and Gramola should be proud of their accomplishment: a beautifully played four and a half hours of music that shows a distinctive sound, and presents Beethoven in all stages of his career at his very best.

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