BEETHOVEN: Three String Trios, Op. 9 – Jascha Heifetz, violin/ William Primrose, viola/ Gregor Piatagorsky, cello – Pristine Audio

BEETHOVEN: Three String Trios, Op. 9 – Jascha Heifetz, violin/ William Primrose, viola/ Gregor Piatagorsky, cello – Pristine Audio PCM 094, 63:33 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****: 

Engineer and producer Andre Rose has resuscitated patently important recordings – much criticized originally for their lack of acoustical reverberation – from RCA, inscribed 1957 and 1960 (String Trio in D Major), by the so-called “Million Dollar  Trio” of Heifetz, Primrose, and Piatagorsky. Isaac Stern once described the Twentieth Century as “the age of Heifetz,” insofar as great violin performance standards were concerned. Noted for tonal accuracy and refined intensity, Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) was a Lithuanian-born American violinist. He was born in Vilnius. He is widely regarded as the most important and influential violinist of the twentieth century, and violinists and musicians alike consider him to be the greatest violinist of all time. A child prodigy, he moved with his family to the United States where his Carnegie Hall debut won rapturous reviews. He had a long and successful recording career; after an injury to his right (bowing) arm, he focused on teaching.

The present remasterings of the Beethoven string trios projects an intensely clear focus, well-balanced, considering the Heifetz propensity for self-aggrandizement by way of microphone placement. The fine collaborative contributions by William Primrose and Gregor Piatagosky ensure an often fiery blend of Beethoven’s lyric and suddenly passionate impulses.

Among the nobles who served as Beethoven’s patrons after his arrival in Vienna in 1792 was Count Johann Georg von Browne-Camus. He is said to have squandered his fortune, and ended his days in a public institution. But in the mid-1790s, Beethoven received such generous support from Browne that he dedicated several works to him and his wife, including the three string trios of Op. 9. In response, Browne presented Beethoven with a horse, which the preoccupied composer promptly forgot, thereby allowing his servant to rent out the beast and pocket the profits!

The first of the triptych, the G Major Trio (27 March 1957), proceeds by small but pert gestures in the first movement, often in sizzling display – in rockets and imitative effects – from our principals. The second movement could aptly be called Romanze rather than Adagio, so operatic sings the major idea, especially from the violin. A deft Scherzo-Allegro ensues, followed by an energetic sonata-allegro, Presto, in Haydn (or later, Mendelssohn) terms that tests the virtuosity of our instrumentalists.

The opening material of the D Major Trio, Op. 9, No. 2 (27 August 1960) serves as something of an introduction, followed by the presentation of the main theme, a five-note turn that becomes predominant in the movement. The second theme provides contrast with a calm repeated-note viola accompaniment as the violin and the Piatagorsky cello sing a marvelous duet. The development explores the harmonic implications of the movement’s opening gesture until the return of the five-note theme in the recapitulation.

The highly rhetorical second movement opens with a series of questioning chords. Once we have received an answer, the movement proceeds with a rapturous theme from Heifetz, answered by Piatagorsky in his highest register, and completed finally by Heifetz and Primrose in unison at the octave. After the opening chords return in a more dramatic version, a dropping arpeggiated motive comes to the fore, leading to a coda, which gently brings the movement to a close.

The Menuetto presents a plethora of slurs over the bar-line; its trio is minimal, a bare outline of a few progressions spelled out economically, the whole thing marked pianissimo. The main theme of the brilliant Rondo is presented each time by the cello in its high register and marked “solo” — perhaps a trace of Beethoven’s visit to Berlin where he heard the brilliant playing of Jean-Pierre Duport, a gifted contemporary. Piatagorsky reminds us how much his warm tone garnered high praise from admirers.

Beethoven already treats the key of C minor as a special domain for the expression of intense feeling. The first four notes even suggest the dramatic intensity – and here our “million dollars” is well invested – of his later music. The first movement of this Trio proffers dramatic tension and a sense of urgency, in complete contrast with the heavenly Adagio con espressione in C Major. Here, Beethoven writes the opening bars in four parts (using double-stopping), as if he were already warming up for the later string quartets. A solid “symphonic” sound emanates from our principals. The Scherzo in C Minor exerts great vitality and rhythmic bite, complemented by a contrasting Trio section in major. The work ends with an even quicker presto, full of scurrying scales and a whimsical, Haydnesque ending. By 1798 Beethoven already told us always to expect the unexpected, except when the expected sufficed.

—Gary Lemco

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