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Friday, April 27, 2012

Ludwig van Beethoven, "The Archduke Trio/Kreutzer Sonata"

Ludwig van Beethoven
"Archduke Trio / Kreutzer Sonata"
Naxos (2002)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

I don't know about you, but going through that five-album Beatles slog made me really happy to get to the Beau Brummels. This is one of the downsides to Tom Moon's book; there are a few artists that he finds worthy of multiple entries, and due to the alphabetical nature of the collection, systematic bloggers like me are forced to approach all of the artist's work at once. There are three artists that have six entries: Miles Davis, The Beatles (as we've seen), and Ludwig van Beethoven, who unfortunately comes so near to The Beatles alphabetically. This one might be even more painful for those of us (including myself) more attuned to mainstream fare than classical.

The good news is that Moon gets us rolling with the ultimate power trio in classical music: Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot, French violinist Jacques Thibaud and Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. All three were considered among the finest players of their era (particularly Casals, who was invited to play at the White House for multiple presidents and is believed by many to be the best ever at his instrument), plus the three were friends to begin with, frequently playing together for both fun and profit. Therefore it's arguable that this was the best potential group to play a piano trio from "the greatest composer who ever lived," in this case "The Archduke Trio."

This particular piece, also known as Piano Trio Op. 97, was composed in 1811 to honor Archduke Rudolph of Austria (whom Beethoven would dedicate some 14 works to, including the Missa Solemnis, which we'll look at later), and was the last piece Beethoven himself performed, due to his increasing hearing problems.

Although the album referenced by Moon features three recordings, including Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata" and "Magic Flute Variations," the "Archduke Trio" is the best bet because it is the only piece featuring all three musicians. "Magic Flute" is a wonderful dance between Cortot and Casals, but for my money, Thibaud's violin steals the spotlight from Cortot's piano during "Kreutzer," not by intention but simply by the nature of the two instruments.

"Archduke" not only features all three performers, but allows each to shine within his preferred instrument. Note that this doesn't mean each gets a turn for taking a solo; the "Archduke" doesn't work like that. Rather, Beethoven's composition combines parts for the instruments that, taken by themselves, don't seem to add up to a tightly wound piece. It takes highly-skilled instrumentalists, like the ones featured here, to pull it off and pull it together (Beethoven's own performance of the piece was reported as erratic due to his oncoming deafness, and the critical recognition of the piece suffered as a result). Casals, Cortot and Thibaud exercise excellent chemistry to make this recording come to life.

The downside is that these sessions were recorded during the '20s, and only so much remastering could be done. Don't let it distract you too much. This is an upbeat piece from Beethoven, and it's well worth a listen.

INTERESTING FACT: The "Kreutzer Sonata" was originally dedicated to violinist George Bridgetower, however Bridgetower offended Beethoven by slandering the character of a woman he was taken with. As a result, the composer rededicated it to Rodolphe Kreutzer, considered to be the best player of the time. Kreutzer never performed the piece however, calling the difficult violin part with it "outrageously unintelligible."

"Archduke Trio"

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