Beethoven Complete Piano Trios Bridge

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Trios
Weiss Kaplan Stumpf Trio
rec. 2019, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
Bridge Records 9505A/C [3 CDs: 229]

It was in 2019 that the New York based Weiss Kaplan Stumpf Trio set down this Beethoven Piano Trio cycle. The venue is the city’s American Academy of Arts and Letters. Although they’ve worked together for some twenty years, the musicians don’t record together that often, but their previous collaborations have included  a disc of trios by Brahms and Smetana.  For this recording, violinist Mark Kaplan plays a Stradivari from 1685, cellist Peter Stumpf a 1642 Amati, whilst pianist Yael Weiss performs on a Steinway. 

Although one can hear in Beethoven’s first three Op. 1 Trios, penned when he was only 25, echoes of Haydn and Mozart, there was a definite shift towards composing something with more equality between the three instruments. He was still striving to find his own style. Moving on to the later trios, Op. 70 No. 1 and 2, dating from around the time of the Fifth Symphony, and the Op. 97, written a couple of years later, the composer reveals a much greater elevated level of maturity. Titles were added to Op. 70. No. 1 and Op. 97. The former is the “Ghost” Trio, so called because of its eerie 2nd movement, and so named by the composer’s pupil Carl Czerny. Op. 97 bears the title “Archduke”, because it bears a dedication to Archduke Rudolph of Austria.

The three Piano Trios Op. 1 were dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, and were premiered in the Prince’s Vienna home in 1793. Haydn had given the young composer advice regarding some changes, which were later made prior to publication in 1795. The Trios were an immediate success and it’s not difficult to see why. They overflow with melody and show a fair amount of ingenuity and compositional flair. Each is in four movements. The players bring spontaneity, freshness and vigour to their interpretations. Their slow movements stand out especially for their lyrical phrasing and probing depth. 

The two Op. 70 trios were written whilst the composer was resident at Countess Marie von Erdödy’s estate, and were dedicated to the Countess. They were published in 1809. No, 1 has the title “Ghost” and has gained much popularity amongst ensembles. The outer movements are both punchy, rhythmically tight and make a striking impression. The Weiss Kaplan Stumpf Trio perform the central Larghetto extremely well, creating an eerie, spectral aura suffused with mystery. I’ve never heard this movement done better. The second trio of the set in the key of E flat major is my particular favorite of all Beethoven’s trios. This upbeat rendition has all the nobility one would expect, whilst conveying the composer’s infectious wit and humour.

The “Archduke” Trio is cast on a symphonic scale. The ensemble choose tempi throughout which sit comfortably, and their pacing can’t be faulted. The Andante cantabile variation movement is elevated and impressive, with each variation unfolding with striking colourful character. The other movements are played with energy, ebullience and brilliance. 

The two sets of variations are stylish and idiomatic and reveal a wealth of glorious insights. 

These fine performances have been beautifully recorded, with a satisfying balance between the different instrumentalists. The New York venue’s agreeable acoustic serves the performances well. In the accompanying booklet, the performers share their own personal thoughts and insights on the works played.

Stephen Greenbank

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Piano Trio in E flat major, op.1 no.1
Piano Trio in G major, op.1 no.2
Piano Trio in C minor, op.1 no.3
Piano Trio in D major, op.70 no.1 ‘Ghost
Piano Trio in E flat major, op.70 no.2
Piano Trio in B flat major, op.97 ‘Archduke
Piano Trio in E flat major, op.44 ‘Variations on an Original Theme’
Piano Trio in G major, op.121a ‘Kakadu Variations’

Mark Kaplan (violin)
Peter Stumpf (cello)
Yael Weiss (piano)