Giorgio Koukl | 24 NOV 2023
Bridge Records is releasing a new 3-CD set containing the most important works for piano trio by Ludwig van Beethoven.
For the Weiss Kaplan Stumpf Trio, this is certainly a highlight in their career, and it must be said right from the beginning, an exceptionally well-crafted monument of musicality.
As the pianist Yael Weiss explains in the exhaustive liner notes, she did much additional research, going so far as studying the autographs when available to be able to interpret the tiniest signs Beethoven retained necessary to explain his intentions, signs which sometimes have been made uniform or worse, omitted in the official printed versions. Such an intensive study is rare nowadays but is characteristic of the meticulous scrutiny preceding the recording.
Generally speaking, this installment is by far the best I have listened to in recent years. Mr. Mark Kaplan is playing the Stradivari “Marquis” (1685), Mr. Peter Stumpf is playing a Nicolò Amati cello (1642), so logically, the producers decided to pair this set of exceptional instruments with the Steinway model D for Ms. Weiss, which for a trio recording is rather unusual.
Also, thanks to the superior recording quality, the sound of this trio is so well balanced and delicate, quite different from previous renderings of even famous musicians of the past. Here, it can surely be said that a new aesthetics has been created, much to the benefit of the Beethoven scores.
The first CD starts with the well-known “Ghost” Trio in D major, Op. 70 No. 1, with its three movements: “Allegro vivace e con brio,” “Largo assai ed espressivo,” and “Presto.”
This score is surely one of the most played pieces in the trio world, its strange “Ghost” name probably coming from Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny, who found similarities with the ghost scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The extensive use of chromatic harmonies and unusual contrasts may justify such a nickname. The other trio of Op. 70, the No, 2, is the last trio on the third CD. Both are dedicated to Countess Marie d’Erdödy, a fervent admirer of Beethoven.
The perfect interplay of this trio is particularly evident in the last movement, “Presto,” where the rhythmic combination between the piano and the strings reaches its zenith. Usually, it is not a big deal to play straight notes together, but a real mastery is reached where tiny rubato and small and rather inaudible pauses between the notes create a beautiful sense of elegance, so rare in the actual chamber music panorama. This is the sign of hundreds of hours of an exceptional chamber music ensemble practicing together.
The three Op. 1 trios are sagely divided between all three discs in order to obtain a major stylistic variability inside a single CD. This early Beethoven is justly considered already mature enough to find a distinctive voice even if still following his natural predecessors Mozart and Haydn. Written between 1793 and 1794, the composer himself found them good enough to present to a well-known Vienna editor, Artaria & Cie.
The slow movements are musically intriguing; this is a general fact valid in every work of Beethoven, but here, in the extreme rarefaction, it is truly a challenge to every musician. The Weiss Kaplan Stumpf Trio manages this hurdle with ease and a natural charm.
One another major trio literature cornerstone is the so-called “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97. At 42 minutes, it is the longest work of all three CDs.
It is divided into four movements: “Allegro moderato,” “Scherzo,” “Andante cantabile,” and “Allegro moderato,” and was written probably around 1811. Its nickname derives from the dedication to a student of Beethoven and future Archbishop of Olomouc, Duke Rudolph of Austria, who received this music together with the Piano Concerto No. 4 and many other works.
It is probably the highest quality interpretation of the trio, maybe together with the “Kakadu” Variations. The “perlato” piano play, the perfectly adapted bowing technique of both string players, and the tiny dynamic differences: all this is rarely seen in today’s world music panorama.
The two variations Op. 121a and Op. 44 are the last pieces to be mentioned.
Especially the “Kakadu” Variations in G major is a real gem. Written over a tune out of Wenzel Müller’s opera The Sisters of Prague, it probably is a youthful work rewritten in the late period style of the great German Maestro. In the opinion of many scholars, the complicated fuga is especially too characteristic of the late Beethoven, so even in the absence of secure sources, we can assume this is juvenalia reworked in 1823.
Its frivolous main theme strongly contrasts with the complicated and harmonically challenging development, so in this sense, it is also a difficult piece to play.
In general terms, such great musical capacities, perfect interpretation, and stylistic consistency make this 3-disc album an extraordinary example of the highest quality recording, something the Weiss Kaplan Stumpf Trio can be proud of. ■
- Weiss Kaplan Stumpf Trio: .weiss-kaplan-stumpf-trio.com