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Beethoven: Complete Piano Trios, Vol. 1 - Van Baerle Trio

Beethoven: Complete Piano Trios, Vol. 1 - Van Baerle Trio

Challenge Classics  CC 72765

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber


Beethoven: Piano Trios 1, 3 & 4

Van Baerle Trio


Beethoven’s primary reason for settling in Vienna in 1792 was to study with Joseph Haydn, who at the time was widely considered the greatest living composer. Beethoven’s three Piano Trios op. 1 were the first compositions that he deemed important enough to give an opus number. They were dedicated to Prince Karl Lichnowsky, a patron of Beethoven in whose house he lived for some time. According to Beethoven’s lifelong friend Ferdinand Ries, Haydn was complimentary about the set of trios. The trios combine various elements that would have been familiar to Beethoven’s contemporaries. Less familiar, however, would be the fact that the trios contain four movements rather than the three that had been traditional in this genre. Although changes from major to minor had been common in the music of previous generations, where they would normally apply to just the last chord, Beethoven employs this technique more extensively here than was probably common at that time.

Much like Op. 1, the Trio Op. 11 is also connected to the Viennese nobility of the time. Beethoven cleverly dedicated it to Maria Wilhelmine Countess of Thun-Hohenstein. In other ways, too, Beethoven tried to make this a particularly attractive publication for the Viennese public: the trio could be performed with a clarinet instead of a violin, a flexible approach to instrumentation that would doubtless increase its marketability. In addition, the last movement consists of a theme from Joseph Weigl’s comic opera L'amor marinaro, followed by a series of variations. At the time when Beethoven wrote this trio, Weigl’s opera was very popular in Vienna.

This recording was made using a Chris Maene Concert Grand built in 2017. This remarkable instrument combines the knowledge and materials used in modern piano building with those found in older historical instruments. The most striking feature is that unlike in modern grand pianos, in which the strings in the bass and middle registers cross, in this instrument all strings run parallel to each other. As a result, it combines the solidity of a modern concert grand piano with the transparent sound ideal of older instruments. The sound of this symbiosis of old and new was a source of inspiration during the recording of Beethoven’s Piano Trios.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - November 15, 2017

Being a fervent chamber music man, I have a shelve full of piano trios (discs, I mean), amongst which a number from the LvB stable. Old RBCD’s as well as new SACD’s. Some are quite good and others have such a sentimental value that any newcomer must be of a high standard to make me change my loyalty. That said, I have, at the same time, a problem in that, for completeness sake, overlaps in my library could not always be avoided. I am therefore inclined to look at a complete set to clean up my CD shelves, the more so because over the years space in my library has become scarce. A good reason to welcome a release that states right from the start that it is the first volume of more to come. Let’s keep our fingers crossed; ‘The Amsterdam String Quartet’ never finished their projected series of Haydn Quartets beyond Vol. 2.

Hannes Minnaar is not new to the hi-res catalogue. Some time ago I reviewed this laureate of the 2010 ‘Reine Elisabeth Concours’, in a series of Beethoven piano concerti. As I enjoyed these readings immensely, I’m glad to see him coming back, this time as the piano player in the ‘Van Baerle Trio’. For those who are new to this trio: They took their name from the ‘van Baerle straat’, the street in Amsterdam where “The three musicians met … during their studies at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, at a stone's throw from the Concertgebouw, which they consider as their musical home”. In their short existence they have managed to build up a firm reputation. In 2013 they won the ARD (Consortium of Regional Public Service Broadcasters in Germany) International Music Competition and were nominated for the ECHO Rising Stars 2013/14, in which connection they toured Europe giving concerts in Vienna (Musikverein), London (Barbican), Paris (Cité de la Musique) and other international stages. And this is not their first recording. A previous album with both Mendelssohn trios (RBCD, Challenge Classics) met with great acclaim.

As for the other members of the group: Apart from the instruments they are playing there is no information in the booklet, so curious readers may want to know that Moscow born violinist Maria Milstein is not related to the late Nathan (born in Odessa, Ukraine). And, furthermore, that she made her solo debut in 2016, playing Glazunov’s violin concerto, with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. The third member, Gideon den Herder, a former pupil of the Belgian Cello player, Roel Dieltiens, is also solo cellist with The Hague Philharmonic. What more does one need to arouse curiosity about what they have to say in Vol. 1 of the Beethoven Trios?

A revelation? You bet! Any faint hope that no newcomer would be able to supplant my thus far cherished recordings was instantaneously shattered. The two early piano trios, Op. 1 no. 1 and Op. 1 no. 3 stormed out of my surround system as though the players were catapulted ‘live’ into my listening room. Brimming with youthful energy and played with such spontaneity that my undercooled spirits from the slashing autumn rain outside evaporated as the proverbial snow before the sun. A pure joy to listen to readings that so exactly mimic the spirit of the 22 year young Beethoven’s first audacious attempts on the Great Viennese Musical Scene. Still close to Haydn, but already with an unmistakable own stamp, with 4 instead of the Haydn norm of only three.

To make sure I wasn’t dreaming I put on an oldie which I’d always liked: the Castle Trio playing on period instruments from The Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC. As expected from a musical point well done, although, apart from an awful RBCD sound, I sensed a degree of nervous tension in the virtuoso parts I wasn’t aware of before; but still to be preferred over the competent but in my view too much routinely played version (No. 3) by Freddy Kempf & Co on much better sounding SACD, lacking however the last bit of compassion and commitment from the van Baerle’s.

The third piece of this album (Trio no. 4, Op. 11) nicknamed ‘Gassenhauer’ (derived from folk tunes people used to sing or whistle in the narrow lanes or “gassen” of Vienna, in this particular case the tune of the variations in the final movement), written about four years later, but still belonging to the youth trios, goes back to the traditional 3 movement form. Like its predecessors, it’s dedicated to nobility, but this time a noble woman. It was meant to be attractive, probably for sales purposes, and therefore misses some of the audacity of the other two. Without resorting to a ‘salon’ affair, the van Baerle’s adapt themselves expertly, giving an attractive optimist reading with spirited elegance, resulting in a tuneful, final ‘variations’ movement.

Perhaps that some will be tempted to call it ‘middle of the road’, however well played. But that won’t do justice to these fine readings. To my mind the greatest strength of the Van Baerle Trio resides in the fact that they don’t overdo things. They do not try to put more virtuosity in the music than required for presenting a vivid picture and not more drama than needed for a passionate performance. An excitingly crafted, well balanced reading. In short: They got it just right! A most promising debut of a projected complete cycle. And what’s more: Thus far not available in hi-resolution.

One more point for consideration: The extraordinary sonority does not just come from the - as usual - excellent recording by Bert van der Wolf’s outfit, but also from the grand Hannes Minnaar is playing: A so called ‘Straight Strung Concert Grand, build by Chris Maene earlier this year (2017), combining “the knowledge and materials used in modern piano building with those found in older historical instruments.” (For more information visit: http://www.chrismaene.be/nl/straight-strung-concert-grand/ ).

I’ve put the old guard to rest.

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2017 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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