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Like many people, my tastes in music are pretty wide ranging and I'll happily listen to anything from hard rock to bubblegum pop but the music I always return to and which never seems to become stale is classical music and Beethoven, for me, is the pinnacle of musical genius.
A brief history of Beethoven's Trios
Throughout his career Beethoven wrote just about every form of music: symphonies, concertos, choral pieces and oratorios, from fully orchestrated compositions to delicate little piano pieces such as Für Elise and each and every one of them demonstrated his towering genius. He was very much into musical experimentation and over the course of a decade or two produced a series of trios for a variety of instruments using several permutations but it's his piano trios which are most often singled out as some of his greatest compositions, especially Trio no. 97, the Archduke, named for his friend and sponsor, Archduke Rudolph, the youngest son of the Emperor Leopold II.
Beethoven wasn't the first composer to write trios; his tutor Haydn wrote a huge number, but what Beethoven did was take what was a relatively obscure musical form and revolutionised it, adding an additional scherzo into the mix and taking it from a three to a four movement composition and in the process making it his own.
These piano trios seem to me to be an exploration of the versatility of the three instruments used - piano, violin and cello - and Beethoven demonstrates how they inter-relate with first one introducing the theme and the other two giving their variations, all the while feeding off each others' innovation. In parts the music is deceptively simple and in others fiendishly complex, but always beautifully melodic and above all, filled with Beethoven's unique brand of passion. His piano trios demonstrate his genius not only for composition of glorious music but for writing pieces which sound full bodied and glorious yet use only three instruments. What can I say, the man was a god!
The trio of musicians
Piano: Daniel Barenboim is one of the world's foremost classical pianists and arguably one of the best interpreter of Beethoven's piano music there has ever been. At the time of the original recording he was married to Jacqueline Du Pre.
Cello: British born Jacqueline Du Pre was a brilliant cellist of world renown. Married to Daniel Barenboim, her career was sadly brought to an end when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the cause of her early death.
Violin: Pinchas Zukerman is an Israeli violinist, another world class musician who at the time of this recording was one of the foremost concert violinists of his generation.
These performances were originally recorded in London over the period 1969 to 1970 at the time when Barenboim, Du Pre and Zukerman were regarded as three wunderkind of the classical music scene. Their talents weren't over-exaggerated by music reviewers and this recording demonstrates that the high regard in which they were held was well deserved. Personally, I find this recording of four of Beethoven's piano trios, plus a handful of variations, has yet to be bettered. The recording was digitally re-mastered in 2001 and released by EMI as a 2 disc compilation.
The piano does tend to dominate these pieces, not because Daniel Barenboim is hogging the limelight but simply because that's how Beethoven wrote them: They are piano trios after all. At the time Beethoven was composing, the piano was still pretty much in its musical infancy and hadn't yet been fully developed into its final form. When Broadwood, the Scottish piano makers, made their improvements to the original French design, they gave Beethoven one of their new pianos which increased the musical range of the instrument by a couple of octaves, and he obviously made very good use of it.
It goes without saying that Daniel Barenboim's playing is superlative. He was only in his mid-twenties at the time of these recordings and had already received great critical acclaim. You can almost hear him stroking the keys rather than striking them and the sounds he manages to coax from the piano are heart-wrenching and sublime, powerful and dramatic.
The piano may take centre stage but that isn't to say the other two musicians don't get a fair crack of the whip and over the course of the recording each musician has their moment to shine, and boy, do they shine! Arguably this triumvirate are the very best exponents of their respective instruments, certainly at the time of this recording and also in terms of their interpretation of Beethoven's music.
The slower movements generally give the strings their chance to shine with the piano simply providing the punctuation. The absolute mastery of their instruments by both Jacqueline Du Pre and Pinchas Zukerman is very evident with lots of long slow notes which resonate beautifully. The synchronicity of the mellow cello and lighter violin playing is superb and adds a textured layer to the music, giving a rich, full bodied sound. There are times when it seems the strings are competing against the piano in some kind of musical battle for supremacy but in the final analysis honours are about even I'd say.
The music moves from light to dark and back again. In fact, these pieces cover the full range of emotion from fast paced, light-hearted and jolly, to slow, softly poignant and sombre. There are also moments which sound incredibly modern, almost jazz-like or poppy, with plucked strings and lots of syncopation. Beethoven was never afraid to try something new.
Classical music and especially that composed by the deeply passionate Beethoven, isn't the kind one just listens to with the ears, it's also felt deep within the listener's body. Beethoven, in particular, was extremely adept at producing notes which resonate at such a pitch that they're felt physically like an emotional ache. I've always maintained that Mozart's music touches the heart but Beethoven's reaches right down into the soul.
If you only ever buy one recording of Beethoven's piano trios, this is definitely the one to get. I'm sure it will be many years, if ever, before this is bettered.
This is available for £9.99 in CD format but there are used copies available for half that price. The MP3 download is £15.99.
Piano Trio No. 1 in E Flat
Piano Trio No. 2 in G
14 variations in E Flat
Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor
Piano Trio No. 7 in B Flat 'Archduke'
Allegretto in B Flat
Allegretto in E Flat