BEETHOVEN: Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C Major, “Triple”; Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1 No. 1 – Claremont Trio/ SF Ballet Orch./ Martin West – Bridge

by | Mar 19, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C Major, Op. 56 “Triple”; Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1 No. 1 – Claremont Trio/ San Francisco Ballet Orch./ Martin West – Bridge 9395, 66:10 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Something old and something new. . . . This is an interesting program on several scores, not least being the very inclusion of the Triple Concerto, which still doesn’t get the respect it probably should. But also, in combining the Triple with the First Piano Trio, we have a well-contrasted pair: one throwback work and one work that seemed so radical to Beethoven’s teacher Haydn he counseled the younger man not to publish it—at least not before he had established a track record as a published composer. Beethoven seems to have been miffed at this, thinking Haydn was motivated by sheer jealousy, and went ahead with publication anyway—as the notes to the current recording state, making this trio and its two companion works just about the most significant opus 1 in the history of music.

The sheer size of the Opus 1 Trios (embracing as they do an unprecedented four movements, including that new-fangled stand-in for the minuet, the scherzo) was certainly one factor in Haydn’s equivocation. But the works’ more up-to-date harmonic language and more virtuosic writing for all three instruments, especially the cello—which played a subservient role in Haydn’s trios—must also have given the older composer pause.

It’s interesting, then, that Beethoven’s next essay for piano trio should be the Triple Concerto, his only concerted work for more than one instrument and a decided rarity in the nineteenth century, given the increasing cultivation of the solo virtuoso and the rapid growth, in both size and power of the symphony orchestra. The concerto for multiple instruments had its origins in the concerto grosso. Among well-known Baroque examples are Vivaldi’s Concerti con multi strumenti and, of course, Bach’s Brandenburgs. The form survived in the Classical era as the sinfonia concertante; many of these were written, but few have been chosen for posterity, the examples by Mozart and Haydn being the only ones you’ll hear in the concert hall today.

Beethoven’s infamously unreliable first biographer, Anton Schindler, stated that the Triple Concerto was originally written, in 1803, for performance by Beethoven’s gifted pupil Archduke Ferdinand, who would have been seventeen at the time. This actually makes sense since the piano part, despite the chance for some bravura flourishes, is tailored to a gifted amateur’s talents rather than to those of a virtuoso. On the other hand, the violin and cello parts, especially the cello, were clearly penned with more seasoned players in mind. Much of the cello line is written in the upper register to help that instrument compete with Beethoven’s as-usual stentorian orchestral backdrop.

Fortunately, the Claremont Trio’s cellist, Julia Bruskin, plays with a firm hand and solid tone; her brief solo in the Largo is especially nicely played. The other members of the team, violinist Emily Bruskin and pianist Andrea Lam, acquit themselves well, too, after what seems like a slightly tentative start following the opening tutti, delivered with gusto by the orchestra. This piece has been recorded by both teams of stellar soloists and dedicated piano trios such as the Beaux Arts and Wanderer Trios, and I frankly believe that the ensemble playing cultivated by a trio of performers who have lived with each other for a while usually results in the most successful interpretations. (Though, by the way, if you want a fine one featuring a team of star performers, you probably can’t do better than the budget offering from Arte Nova with Yafim Bronfman, Gil Shaham, and Truls Mørk, David Zinman conducting.) And so it is here. The Claremont Trio works quite naturally together, whether harmonizing sweetly or responding to one another in the many call-and-response passages written into the music. The Largo floats along very tenderly in contrast to an especially athletic finale, which follows attaca.

It’s an enjoyable performance, as is that of the Trio. Here, the Claremont captures the air of the new and dynamic that Beethoven wanted to spring on an unsuspecting public. There’s a brash confidence about the playing that never, of course, devolves into anything unruly—just unbuttoned, in the best sense of the word. At any rate, given the fine quality of the performances and recordings (the Concerto set down at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, the Trio at Purchase College in New York) and the well-chosen program itself, this disc merits a sound recommendation. It should give real pleasure.

—Lee Passarella

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