June 10, 2010


Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6. English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Beethoven: Piano Trio in E-Flat, Hess 47; Piano Trio in D, Kinsky/Halm Anhang 3; Piano Trio in E-Flat, Op. 63. Beethoven Project Trio (George Lepauw, piano; Sang Mee Lee, violin; Wendy Warner, cello). Cedille. $16.99.

     There is always something new to be heard in the music of Bach and Beethoven – and every once in a while, there is a bit of genuinely new (or sort-of-new) music by one of them to hear. What John Eliot Gardiner does new with the Brandenburg Concertos is to step back from them: he actually conducts only Nos. 1 and 2. The rest are led, more or less, by English Baroque Soloists leader Kati Debretzeni – except for No. 6, since she is a violinist and that concerto contains no violins. In a sense, this two-CD set from SDG (“Soli Deo Gloria,” quite a name for a music label) is an experiment, and it is a wholly successful one. The performers treat Bach’s Brandenburgs first and foremost as dance music – and, to almost the same extent, as chamber music. Gardiner conducts the first two concertos because they are the most “orchestral” in fabric; the remaining four are performed without a conductor because, as chamber-music works, they do not require one. What they do need is impeccable phrasing, a sure sense of style, precision entrances of the instruments, and a superb sense of tonal balance – and they have all of those here. This is a simply wonderful Brandenburg set, abounding in joie de vivre and filled with instrumental touches inspired by the musicians’ creativity and understanding. In No. 1, for example, the horns are intrusive among the more “refined” instruments of their day – to the point of raucousness, especially in the first movement. This produces an unusually bright and bubbly performance of this most suite-like of the Brandenburgs. What stands out in No. 2 is the odd instrumental combination that Bach created – violin, recorder, oboe and trumpet – and the outstanding balance among the instruments, with the flawlessly played high trumpet fitting perfectly into the group and never overshadowing it. No. 3 is a tour de force for strings, with a finale that positively gallops without ever seeming rushed. In No. 4, the lilt of the two recorders has remarkable lightness and delicacy. No. 5 is handled with rare intelligence, not as the sort of harpsichord concerto that Haydn would write a few years later but as a chamber piece in which the harpsichord assumes the position of primus inter pares (“first among equals”) for a time. And No. 6 is a marvel, its dark hues never eclipsing the dancelike rhythms of the music and the fascinating interplay among viola, cello, viola da gamba and violone. There are many well-played Brandenburg sets available, but very few that show the music in a new light. This one does – it is an exceptional recording.

     The Beethoven Project Trio’s CD promises something even more exceptional: entirely new works by the composer. Or newly discovered ones, anyway. And that is indeed what this CD offers – more or less. It is the fact that the music is played by a piano trio that is really the new thing here; the music itself is familiar in other forms. Thus, the Piano Trio in E-Flat, Hess 47, which receives its world première recording here, is in fact Beethoven’s arrangement for piano trio of the first movement of his 1794 String Trio, Op. 3, the composer’s first work for violin, viola and cello. This is early, Mozartean Beethoven, with a fuller sound in the piano-trio version and some interesting use of syncopation that the performers handle well. The Piano Trio in D, Kinsky/Halm Anhang 3, is Mozartean, too – so much so that it has a Köchel number (Anhang 52a), because it was for a time believed to be a work by Mozart. This piece is in two movements and exists only in fragmented form – 33 bars are missing in the first movement – and the recording here is the world première of a version made by Robert McConnell. This is a work from 1799, and it partakes of the world of Haydn as well as that of Mozart, but contains little of what would come to be thought of as the Beethoven sound (although a second-movement modulation into the unexpected key of F minor is a hint of things to come). The final piece on this CD is a transcription for piano trio of the 1795 String Quintet, Op. 4, which in turn was based on an octet for winds dating to 1792. The Piano Trio in E-Flat, Op. 63 was published in 1806 and most likely (although not certainly) transcribed by Beethoven himself. This is a better-made and more substantial work than the others on this CD, with the piano taking the lead through much of the four-movement structure and often being called on for greater virtuosity than the string parts require. This is not particularly deep music, certainly not on the grand scale that one might expect from a piece in the same key as the “Eroica” Symphony. But the Andante is charming, and the work as a whole is bright and cheerful – and less like those of Mozart and Haydn than the other pieces here. The performances are supple and involved, and it is certainly wonderful to have some rare Beethoven chamber music available – even if, in the grand scheme of things, these works are not only lesser-known but also simply lesser Beethoven.

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