BEETHOVEN: Piano Trio No. 6 in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2; Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 97 “Archduke” – Alexander Melnikov, fortepiano/ Isabelle Faust, v./ Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello – Harmonia mundi HMC 902125, 67:34 (2/4/14) ****:

Recorded September 2011, these two Beethoven piano trios enjoy the benefit of Alexander Melnikov’s light-action fortepiano, an Alois Graff (1828) instrument restored by Edwin Beunk. The resultant dynamic balances permit the two stringed instruments a greater degree of transparent nuance than we have come to expect when they confront a modern concert grand.  Beethoven refined the piano-trio medium, having inherited the form from Haydn – who liberated the violin part – and from Mozart, who demanded the cello assume a more prominent melodic function. Given Beethoven’s natural keyboard virtuosity and his explosive temperament, the piano trio became an expressive medium for both intimacy and compressed aggression.

The 1808 Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2 has remained relatively obscure in contrast to its companion, the “Ghost” Trio.  After a brief Poco sostenuto, the Op. 70, No. 2 first movement swaggers into an Allegro ma non troppo in 6/8. Queyras announces the first tune in 4/4, playing upon a 1696 Geofreddo Cappa instrument of burnished tone. Faust sports a 1704 “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius of a thin but piercing tone, entering second, and Melnikov enters last, a progression they reverse in the recapitulation.

The piece does not proffer a true slow movement: rather, two Allegretto movements follow, the first a set of double variations posed as responsories in C Major and C Minor. Queyras’ cello adds a rustic flavor to this homage to Joseph Haydn. A playful dalliance exists among the players, each plying his particular colors against those of the other principals in a mock-march. The second Allegretto extends the violin’s melodic line in minuet form that anticipates much of Mendelssohn. Both lyric and contrapuntal, underlined by a broad pedal points, the blend of colors Beethoven achieves in his cantabile expression may seem unwonted. Melnikov’s virtuoso keyboard has been held in reserve until the last movement, Allegro, in which Beethoven exploits a grandly improvisational character, allowing each instrument its bravura moments. From a series of explosive fragments the music proceeds to the kind of heroic confidence Beethoven’s favored E-flat Major mode consistently emanates. The three principals appear cheerfully urged to ever more, fleetly   splendid displays by their colleagues, and the triumphant effect palpably bristles with artful energy.

Beethoven’s eminent “Archduke” Trio (1814), premiered in Vienna, marked his official farewell to concert life as a touring pianist. His deteriorated hearing virtually made rehearsals with violinist Schuppanzigh and cellist Linke useless. Dedicated to Beethoven’s friend and patron Archduke Rudolf of Austria (1788-1831), the Trio basks in a sea of monumentally expansive impulses, broad and seamless melodies, and an aura of serene confidence. The three instrumentalists engage in dialogues which do not develop urgently, but rather linger over harmonic and melodic elements that turn upon themselves, more in the manner of Schubert. Again, the lighter dynamic action from Melnikov’s fortepiano allows the lyrical persuasion of the movement to unfold in a disarmingly effective tapestry of “symphonic” sound. The false recapitulation, uttered by a thin line from Faust and a plucked sound from Queyras and Melnikov’s staccati, leads to a delicately danced episode that might have been lifted from the weird scale-patterns of the piano in the Emperor Concerto. The grand coda sweeps us up, as tenderly and inexorably as a sweet call to eternity.

The playful upward scales of the Scherzo with Melnikov’s repeated notes dances and sings, a buzzing and bubbly affair that features a grand line from Queyras’ cello. The fugal central episode moves through harmonies that would please Bartok, erupting with a jaunty rhythmic fervor. If you can find a Viennese waltz in this irreverent mix, you well anticipate the kinds of maneuvers of which the Schoenberg School would relish. A Renaissance majesty marks the D Major Andante cantabile, a hymn tune or Spanish sarabande with four variations that we might attribute to Handel or one of Italian precursors. Isabelle Faust and her consorts collaborate in an elegiac idyll that contrasts well with the passing grotesquerie of the previous Scherzo. The slow, almost cautious return of the initial theme – playing of wonderful purity of style from our principals – leads to an extended coda, itself a bridge to the whimsical, eccentric, concluding rondo with its Presto ending. The dance would likely remain “rustic” in the manner of Haydn if it were not for the sudden explosions of color and Beethoven temperament. Melnikov plays both a fluid legato and stamping bass filigree while Faust and Queyras sing away. With its debonair, carefree conclusion, we have traversed a most fascinating amalgam of musical styles by this Beethoven, rendered with transparent fire by our gifted players.

—Gary Lemco