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Hyperion Records

CDD22069 - Beethoven: The Complete String Trios
A Southern Landscape with Classical Ruins and Figures by Hendrik van Lint (1684-1763)
Sotheby’s Picture Library
(Originally issued on CDA67253, CDA67254)

Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Oliver Rivers
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: October 2010
Total duration: 148 minutes 22 seconds


'This repertoire has been recorded by some world-famous artists in the past, but no performances have given me as much pleasure as these. A real treat' (BBC Music Magazine)

'An oustanding pair of discs' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The most sensitive reportage that these works have enjoyed since the advent of digital recording' (The Independent)

'A remarkably gifted young ensemble who bring classical elegance to these glorious works' (Classic CD)

'[A] startlingly good debut' (The Scotsman)

'Here is the finest string ensemble in Britain' (Daily Mail)

'One of the best and most beautiful ensembles to emerge blinking into the sunlight from London's conservatoires in recent years' (The Evening Standard)

The Complete String Trios
Marcia: Allegro  [2'25]
Adagio  [7'35]
Marcia: Allegro  [1'17]
Allegro con brio  [11'49]
Andante  [7'34]
Adagio  [9'33]
Finale: Allegro  [6'22]
Presto  [5'07]
Allegretto  [8'04]
Rondo: Allegro  [6'23]
Finale: Presto  [5'37]

These CDs present all of Beethoven's music for string trio, even including the alternative 'trio' (Hess 28) of the Scherzo movement of Op 9 No 1. Although these works bear early opus numbers they should not be regarded as anything other than first-class, mature Beethoven. They are fine, absorbing pieces, not as well known as they should be—a state of affairs which these wonderful CDs should do much to rectify.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In mid-November 1792 the twenty-one-year-old Beethoven arrived in Vienna from Bonn. He had arranged to study with Haydn, and began to do so at once, as his noted payments to the older composer reveal. These official lessons continued until Haydn left for England in January 1794, but it seems that help with Beethoven’s new compositions never formed a part of the tuition, since the preserved fruits of the study consist only of improvements made, under critical supervision, to a number of the younger composer’s earlier (Bonn) compositions. Later study by Beethoven with Albrechtsberger, and just possibly with Salieri, apparently did not touch on chamber music.

Beethoven’s important early works for string trio seem to have been composed fairly independently of his teachers, and were probably written as vehicles for self-instruction in what was then considered to be a ‘difficult’ musical medium. The Trio in E flat major, Op 3, was composed in mid or late 1795. It opens with a bold, almost orchestral effect, combining syncopation with repeated chords in a brusque first subject. The whole work is notable for its clever variety of rhythms and textures, and its defined character is remarkable even if we compare it with the more assertive aspects of the Opus 1 Piano Trios, the Opus 2 Piano Sonatas, or other known early Vienna products. It has been suggested that the six-movement structure of Op 3 was directly modelled on Mozart’s recently published (by Artaria in 1792) Divertimento in E flat major for string trio, K563, in which, also, two different Menuetto and Trio alternative pairs are heard on either side of a slow fourth movement, but if Beethoven was indeed affected by the earlier masterpiece, it seems rather that he was reacting to, or even against, Mozart in this work. Not until the Serenade in D major, Op 8, was Beethoven to choose a more divertimento-like style and address. The Allegro con brio (considered to be a fast speed at that time), with both its fiery opening material and much of the lighter material, would have been tricky for standard string players—especially in the key of E flat, not then regarded as ideal for strings. The premature ‘false recapitulation’ in F minor anticipates the proper one by nearly forty bars, extending the development section to about twice its predictable length, but the forward pointing of the thematic restlessness compensates for these rather unorthodox proportions. Beethoven was still composing his Opus 1 (three piano trios) around 1795, and at some early stage he started to adapt the first movement of this work for that medium; the authority of his copying hand is clear, even though suggestions for keyboard figures seem to be much more sketchy.

The Andante—in more standard sonata form—is built intriguingly around gentle anacruses and figures in which rests seem almost as important as sounded notes. Although the development is more in the manner of a sonatina movement than one from a sonata, a delightful touch appears soon after the recapitulation where the extension of the opening by the viola is no longer doubled at the octave by the violinist, as formerly, but is instead accompanied by expressive descanting figures. A few bars later in the recapitulation the rhythms are cunningly disguised to create an illusion that the players have drifted out of syncopation, but Beethoven is simply developing rhythmic patterns to their own benefit. A notable device just before each double bar is the stressed off-beat ostinato in the viola part. The special features of this movement were all to continue as Beethoven trademarks for many years; this Andante in B flat seems particularly to anticipate the Eighth Symphony, composed in 1812. The two Menuetti, each to be heard alternativement with its Trio (the second Trio actually being headed simply ‘minore’), demand different tempos (the standard Allegretto and the faster Moderato, respectively). In each case the rather more pointed and even slightly military character of the Menuetto is offset by the lighter Trio—indeed the ‘minore’ seems eventually to evaporate in solo-violin heights of ecstasy; the far from impractical Beethoven sees to it that his soloist has time to descend from the high position before having to start either the repeat or the reprise of the Menuetto: Moderato. The warmly expressive Adagio in A flat is fluidly expressive, with the instruments exchanging the coloratura lines in a remarkably mature manner. The A flat Adagio of the later Piano Sonata Op 10 No 1 inhabits a similarly expansive world to even more striking harmonic effect.

The Finale: Allegro of Opus 3 probably owes some debt to Beethoven’s contrapuntal studies with Albrechtsberger, who seems to have stood in semi-officially for Haydn during the latter’s absences abroad during the mid-1790s. In any event it is a witty contrapuntal movement, of the emphatic type that remained a Beethoven speciality long after he had ceased to compose string trios—the motto-adorned last quartet movement (Op 135, movement 4) has something of the same manner, and there are examples also in the last piano sonatas. Here, as later, the composer is apparently not at all worried when, at times, strict counterpoint has to make way for even more emphasis, such as from bar 199 where each of the participating solo lines enters in turn with the same triplet subject; it looks like fugue, but actually it is but the same declamation, amplified threefold by repetitions at the octave. That is yet another Beethoven trademark, already displayed at the age of twenty-four.

The Serenade in D major, Op 8, is by contrast a far less serious work. It took some time to compose during the following two years or so (1795 to 1797) and was published by Artaria in 1797. It opens and closes with a march, using the same thematic material, but the preserved dynamic markings preclude any approaching crescendo or any diminuendo to simulate departure. The Serenade was challenging material to play by the apparent standards of the time, but it looks as though Beethoven was already acquainted with the great violinist Schuppanzigh at this time. The Adagio which follows the Marcia has so much of the character of string-quartet music, in which the leading violinist plays solo decorations after the pattern of an aria, that an association with the semi-contemporary Opus 18 Quartets, and also even already with Schuppanzigh, may not be too fanciful. Unlike anything in Opus 3, this movement seems intended to be deeply restful. The Menuetto and Trio have a nimble eloquence that culminates in delightful pizzicati. The second Adagio opens with a deeply expressive duet for the violin and viola doubling in octaves and the cello; this is barely established when it is brusquely interrupted by a short section of much faster and wider-ranging material, Scherzo: Allegro molto. Almost inevitably it seems, the soulful Adagio duet—with doubling—returns; after a further scherzando interruption the original philosophical material returns finally to round off the movement.

Next comes a spirited and lively Allegretto alla Polacca, one of the few real polonaises to survive from the period between those of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (another specialist) and Chopin. Beethoven seems to approach this temporary excursion into couleur locale with special relish. A rather more orthodox theme (Andante quasi allegretto) and six variations come next, perhaps for the only time in the string trios showing influence from the music, or even teaching, of Haydn. The Marcia follows a rather special cello variation to complete the entertainment.

It might be claimed that the Opus 3 Trio and the Opus 8 Serenade are apprentice works for the maturing craftsman-composer and that they have as much importance as precursors of other works as they do in their own right. In good performances, however, they manifest their own value irrespective of their chronological place in Beethoven’s output. They appeal and are effective without any call for apology. These works for string trio do actually mark—as contemporaneous works for other media do—that the apprentice has already reached recognizable maturity in his creative craft: they really are, to use the term in both its original and its more usual modern sense, masterpieces.

The composition of the three Opus 9 Trios took several years, overlapping with other music finished both earlier and later. They were apparently written out by March 1798, when Beethoven assigned the publishing rights to Johann Traeg of Vienna. Although the main fair copies are lost, it is recorded that Traeg issued the parts, not publishing a full score, however, until around 1846/7, by which time he had sold his rights to Steiner & Company, also of Vienna. This music therefore could not be examined except through performance for almost forty years. Its influence upon both players and audiences could not have been very strong—nor was it.

One conclusion to be drawn from this history is that these trios were considered to be hard to play. Trios were probably none too fashionable as a genre, and very few string trio groups were employed or even readily available in Vienna at the time. Beethoven himself, chiefly known as a pianist, was in a weak position to draw attention to them himself, not least because of his struggle with encroaching deafness. The first-violin parts of Op 9 were very probably composed with Ignaz Schuppanzigh in mind, and this in itself would virtually have excluded amateur or semi-amateur performance. Nor would any cellist who had dared to try Beethoven’s two sonatas for violoncello and piano, Op 5, have been much inclined to attempt the new trios—the sonatas had been written for the most famous virtuoso of the day, the Berlin court cellist Jean-Louis Duport. Even well after the publication of the score, nearly fifty years later, professional solo technique lagged some way behind the challenges presented in Beethoven’s chamber music for this instrument. And when they did hear it, early listeners were dismayed by much of Beethoven’s notated music. The rather conservative culture of Vienna, which valued convention high above even outstanding invention, will have found Beethoven’s aims—to surprise, to interrupt, even to overwhelm—difficult to accommodate, let alone to accept or enjoy.

The trios were composed roughly at the time when Beethoven was working on his three piano sonatas, Op 10, dedicated to Countess von Browne; the string trios’ dedication is to her husband. There are three works in each set and interesting parallels exist between the first movements of Trio 2 and Sonata 3, both in D major and with all three movements of each work being articulated through that key. There are points of similarity between Op 9 No 3 and Op 10 No 1 too—each being in C minor and the only one of each set in the minor mode—and this third trio also has similarities to the Piano Sonata in C, Op 2 No 3, through parallels of key, thematic contour and rhythmic drive or position in structural or emotional context—characteristics shared with almost every other work composed during Beethoven’s first ten years, a period at least as absorbing as any other of the same length throughout his lifetime. Examination of the many fragmentary sketches of these first ten years (say 1792 to 1801) shows that the composer was at first rather less purposeful and organized than during the later decades; the way in which any idea was gradually refitted for significant musical use was—even with the benefit of hindsight—unpredictable, unorthodox and sometimes seemingly capricious; this is partly why those who claim to be able to show how Beethoven set about the creative process are not only lacking in humility or appropriate caution but also demonstrate ignorance by holding that assumption.

The opening of Trio No 1 in G major is based on arpeggio statements followed by rather fussy semiquaver twisting scales; these latter are picked up for discussion before becoming adopted as the opening subject of the Allegro con brio. Their development as a four-note motif occupies much of the remaining material and has been cited as the musical expression of the philosopher Hegel’s theory that great events in life or history frequently arise through the natural consequences of the apparently inauspicious. The writing of the slow second movement in the far from orthodox submediant major (E) is, however, at odds with such an idea, and the whole work is perhaps especially rich in those very surprises which may have upset Viennese audiences. There are many doubts concerning the second Trio of the Scherzo movement (Hess 28) because it was excluded from the early editions, but it has been included in here because of its musical distinction; it is to be heard alternativement between second and third repeats of the Scherzo.

Trio No 2 in D major exploits a key that is regarded as ‘natural’ to the violin. The solo part is in fact frighteningly difficult—hard to bow, hard to tune successfully, difficult to play ‘instinctively’; once again it resembles the Sonata Op 10 No 3 which is full of technical challenges for the pianist. We are led to contemplate whether the composer (who was certainly, in Opus 10, still composing music to play himself) was aware of all the problems he was presenting to his violinist, although it is known that he did have some knowledge of how to play the instrument. Incidentally, D major had been traditionally a celebratory key, even a happy one, but this String Trio seems rather more serious and challenging, in the true manner of the later Second Symphony.

Trio No 3 in C minor is often described as the most dramatic of the three, but many pieces cast in the minor mode (still around 1800 quite a rarity) similarly explore the surprise elements it automatically includes, and there is little of the drama of either Haydn’s Sturm und Drang symphonies, or even the opening of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte about this music, and much of its character seems to spring from its short-phrased gruffness—a characteristic far more essential to this work, and later almost unique to Beethoven’s music.

Stephen Daw © 1998

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