CD Review: Beethoven's Piano Trios

Florestan Piano Trio (Hyperion)

7 January 2012 4 stars

Beethoven Piano TriosJust a few months ago, after sixteen successful years together the Florestan Trio gave their last concerts in London.  Now Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello) and Susan Tomes (piano) are each off exploring fresh musical pastures.  So this four-disc boxed set of the Beethoven Trios, each released individually between 2003 and 2004, represents their final word on this core part of the repertoire.  Listening to all eight trios together – and I was comparing with another justly acclaimed account, the Beaux Arts Trio Beethoven Piano Trios (Decca 2001) – I was struck by how much their playing fits into what might be called a Florestan house style.

Before discussing what constitutes this, I should just mention that the word 'complete' is slightly misleading.  The set does contain all the standard trios, including the youthful attempts and the 'Kakadu' variations.  Disappointingly though, Beethoven's own arrangements of his Symphony no. 2 and his Septet, op. 20 are not included. 

So what defines this house style?  When big name soloists come together to record a well-known trio like the 'Archduke', the idiosyncrasies of the individual soloists can rub abrasively against one another.  This is never an issue here: each player, while individually expressive, is always subservient to the single vision guiding the character of the phrase, section or whole movement.  Each player is always conscious of his or her role in the ensemble and this is aided by the recording where, for once, piano and strings are balanced perfectly.

Their motto seems to be 'make it interesting', always finding a way of interpreting Beethoven's markings that squeezes maximum character and drama out of the notes.  In the slow movement of the 'Archduke', for example, they conjure up a distinct mood for each variation: from the dreaminess of the first to the pointedness of the second, tolerating a little cheekiness in number three on the way to the bliss of the fourth.

This is particularly welcome in his early essays in the medium, the three op. 1 trios.  Like the op. 2 piano sonatas, each sports a movement or two that lacks that certain inventive spark.  But even here the Florestans have still managed to 'make it interesting'.  The first movement of the third of the set (in C minor) is a case in point.  It is marked con brio, but the group reserve the vigour only for the most exciting moments, the extra contrast amplifying the sense of drama.  This is then topped off by emphasizing the way Beethoven toys with the listener's anticipation and surprise – fading away to nothingness before sudden shocks of energy, or gently leaning back on the tempo on the ascent to climactic peaks.

In the slow movements, the motto often becomes 'don't let it get boring'.  In their cycle, the Beaux Arts Trio favoured languid expansivity and depth of utterance.  Beautiful though this is in the most intense moments, it can be deathly dull when the theme is first stated simply or in later moments of repose.  The Florestans have opted for tempi that are nearly twice as fast, which does force them to scrimp occasionally on the profundity, but leads to a much more digestible whole.  In the slow movement of op. 70 no.1, the 'Ghost', a little more of the espressivo Beethoven called for would have been better.  On the other hand, the perkier rhythm of the Allegretto and the brisker pace of the minuet in its partner, op. 70, no. 2 does hold the attention.

Another defining feature of the house style is the Florestan's lightness and clarity.  Whether you think this is always a good thing is a question of taste.  I happen to like my Beethoven a bit rough around the edges, with performers willing to sacrifice a modicum of precision in order to really go for it in the most passionate episodes – as contemporary witnesses report Beethoven himself did.  But the Florestans never deliver the sort of force you feel Beethoven would have wanted.  At the highpoint of the development section in the first movement of the 'Ghost', for example, they have opted for clear, neat articulation when an edgy, full-throated exclamation is called for. 

Unified ensemble playing that brims with character, contrast and drama; a determination to 'keep it interesting', but in a way that doesn't pervert Beethoven's careful instructions; and a spacious, airy texture in in which all the details of the scoring are clear.  These were the hallmarks of the Florestan Trio house style and they will be missed.

 By Marc Brooks