Beethoven Symphonies - for Piano Trio (and what a trio!)

Beethoven Symphonies - for Piano Trio (and what a trio!)

This is more than a curio, although it is fascinating on many grounds. But let's first of all say that the performances here are as fresh as a daisy. It's as if performing Beethoven symphonies inthese reductions offered a completely fresh perspective for the players and they project that sense of discovery to us, the listeners.

More, the arrangements themselves are fascinating. One, that of the Second Symphony, is by Beethoven pupil Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), while the Fifth is by contemporary composer Colin Matthews.

The poor old Second Symphony is the one of the nine numbered symphonies by Beethoven that always - unaccountably, if you ask me - gets short shrift. It's "brother," the First Symphony, gets out far more and yet the Second, cast in a bright and breezy D-Major, Another aspect that generally gets short shrift in musical textbooks is the arranger, Ferdinand Ries, whose music is unfailinngly inventive (we at Classical Explorer covered his Horn Sonata in this "Cor basse" recital on Harmonia Mundi, though: I feel his Piano Concertos coming on). Ries made this arrangement in 1805, and the composer himself had a hand in the editorial process..

The first movement of the Second is fascinating in thsi reduced format. We get much of the grandeur, but when it comes to the quieter moments, it feels almost as if it was written for piano trio so expert is Ries' transcription.

We certainly hear that chamber quality in the Larghetto quasi Andante. The players' achievement is to make what usually sounds like an orchestral reduction 9which is most likely to happen in the big tuttis) sound like an original work for piano trio - or at least music that sits comfortably in that idiom:

Emanuel Ax's nimble fingers delight in teh Scherzo. Yes we miss a bit of heft in Beethoven's gruff humour, but listen to how the hustle and bustle of the opening ofthe finale sounds, in this reduction, almost like Beethoven having a stab at the mood of Mozart's Le nooze di Figaro:

(from l to r: Emanuel Ex, Yo-Yo Ma, Leonidas Kavakos) Photo credit: Nigel Parry 

Of the Fifth, Emanuel Ax said:

The idea of actually being able to play the beginning of the fifth symphony with your hands is just an incredible thrill. And you learn a lot about his kind of combination of controlled mania with an incredible lyricism — and you get so much of that in both the fifth symphony and the second … It was an incredible thrill to work on this over and over and over, just trying to get the notes.

Colin Matthews' 2021 arrangement was commissioned for the present performers by Sound Postings LLC. The performance is full of energy:

... but it is perhaps in the quieter slow movement that Matthews' magic really hits home. It is not just that it is well transcribed" there seem to be extra layers of mystery, as if reducing the score allows its core to shine. And listen to the magical cobweb of textures around 4"30, and how the radiance of the music shines through:

Inevitably, perhaps, the imitative passages of the Scherzo work beautifully - the piano can convey the idea of solo double-basses at speed so well! Especially when said pianist is Emanuel Ax. And there is proof positive here that the excitement of that emergence of the finale from that  prolonged dominant is possible on three players: as is the grandeur required:

The playing here, as throughout the disc, is faultless. this is chamber music at its very highest echelon.

Colin Matthews is known for the quality of his arrangements as well as being widely admored as a fine composer in his own right. In 2007, he arranged Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen  for tenor and 12 instruments, while his orchestral versions of Debussy's piano Préludes have enjoyed notable recordings by the Hallé Orchestra (they are simply magnificent).

The recording quality itself is absolutely fabulous: very natural balance, perfect clarity. My only quibble is the "booklet" (that's stretching a term. Not sue why there are no booklet notes whatsoever: we get track listing and a massive photo of Ax; recording information (August 2021, Tanglewood)  against a massive photo of a somewhat glowering Kavakos, and "Dedications" against a massive photo of Ma. Thsi is a massive missed opportunity to talk about the importance of Ries and Matthews, their differing epochs and their reactions to Beethoven's music, and so much more.

The disc is dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas, who apparently encouraged the disc plus a sheaf others.

Beethoven for Three
Debussy Préludes, arr Matthews (Amazon link)