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Elaine Fine
American Record Guide, July 2011

After enjoying the playing of these musicians in various configurations, my expectations for these Op. 9 trios were high. These are indeed fine readings, and they are beautifully recorded. In the early days Naxos refrained from putting photographs of musicians on covers. It’s nice to see the faces of the musicians here and to read a little about them.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, July 2011

This completes Naxos’s survey of Beethoven’s string trios performed by members of the Kodály Quartet. The first volume, containing the op. 3 Trio and the op. 8 Serenade, received a positive review from Bart Verhaeghe in Fanfare 30:5. This second installment, recorded in 2008, seems a bit late in coming, but is no less welcome for that.

Surprisingly, competition in this arena is not that strong. Back in 2006 I dismissed as “decaffeinated” the Zurich String Trio’s performances on Brilliant Classics. And while I’ve enjoyed the Kandinsky Trio’s recording of the op. 9 trios on Arte Nova, the set I reach for most often when I’m in the mood for Beethoven’s string trios is the Leopold String Trio’s two-disc set on Hyperion.

The truth is I don’t find myself that often in the mood for Beethoven’s string trios, which is why on those occasions when I do listen to them I’m amazed all over again at what a radical departure they are from earlier models and at how they must have shocked their first hearers. Of course, in saying that these works pose a radical departure from earlier models, one must ask what models Beethoven is departing from. It’s not as if the string trios before Beethoven litter the landscape like so much confetti after New Year’s Eve. Yes, Boccherini wrote a whole bunch (about 65 of them), but they’re not all for the standard complement of violin, viola, and cello. Haydn wrote even more, something like 125, but they’re for viola, cello, and baryton, and of his other string trios (35 or more), most, as far as I know, are written for two violins and cello. I’m sure there are other composers from around this time who thought a violin, viola, and cello made for a satisfying ensemble, but mainly we’re left with Mozart and his one exceptional contribution to the genre, the Divertimento in E♭-Major, K 563.

Mozart’s trio becomes the point of departure for Beethoven’s first trio, the E♭-Major, op. 3. It’s not only the same key it shares with Mozart’s piece but the divertimento-like format of six movements with two menuettos, one of them with two trio sections. Four years separate this first of Beethoven’s string trios (1794) from the set of three op. 9 trios of 1798. The intervening Serenade, op. 8, of a year earlier, is also a six-movement, divertimento-styled work. But the contrasts between these two previous efforts and the op. 9 set are palpable.

The Sturm und Drang shock of the C-Minor work in the group is remarkable. Listen to the slashing chords in the first movement and the ferocious accents and off-the-beat rhythms in the second strain of the scherzo. This is music of a primal, visceral force, and there’s no precedent for it, not Boccherini, not Haydn, and not Mozart. It comes out of nowhere, and it’s hard to imagine the reaction of those who first heard it.

Yet it’s not just the C-Minor Trio, subversive as it is of the established norms of late 18th-century chamber music, that is so amazing. Take the run off the harmonic rails that occurs at the outset of the development section in the first movement of the G-Major Trio. We’ve ended the exposition, according to Hoyle, in D Major. Then, suddenly, without preparation, we find ourselves hovering somewhere between B♭- and E♭-Major. But that’s just a forewarning of the harmonic train wreck in the making. Each of the next 40 or so chromatic bars is like another car in a seemingly endless convoy careening off the tracks. It’s as if what it actually sounded like didn’t matter to Beethoven, and he wasn’t even deaf yet. The aim was not to write music that was pretty, but to deliberately jar and jolt.

Generally, it’s accepted that Beethoven’s string trios laid the groundwork for the op. 18 quartets that followed not long after. To the extent that the trios provided the composer with valuable experience in writing for strings, I would agree. But I don’t agree that we ought to dismiss the trios as little more than preparatory exercises for the quartets. Not only do the trios already exhibit Beethoven’s breakaway from the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, considering what he was able to accomplish with only three instruments, I think these trios are really quite extraordinary works.

The performances here by three members of the famed Kodály Quartet are excellent and very satisfying. In a direct A-B comparison with the Leopold Trio, I’d have to give a slight edge to the latter, especially in the C-Minor Trio, for the speed and hairpin accuracy of cross-rhythm accenting in the scherzo movement. But Attila Falvay, János Fejérvári, and György Éder play with real bite and, where appropriate, pratfall humor, as in the first movement of the D-Major Trio. I also prefer Naxos’s ever-so-slightly reverberant acoustic to the somewhat dry, airless sound Hyperion gives the Leopold ensemble. So, on balance, I’d say you can’t go wrong with this very fine release. Together with its companion volume containing the op. 3 and op. 8 trios, this earns a winning and strong recommendation.

David Hurwitz, March 2011

Beethoven’s string trios stand among his earliest masterpieces, fully the equal of his early quartets. They are the greatest works in their medium after Mozart’s great Divertimento K. 563, and they are boldly and excitingly performed here by three members of the Kodály Quartet. One of the best aspects of the playing is the fact that the music sounds like Beethoven—that is, gutsy and even a touch rough (try the opening Allegro con brio of the G major trio), but never coarse. You just know that this isn’t a pale imitation of Mozart, but a vibrant new musical voice.

Then, in the cantabile adagio of the same work, or in the Adagio con espressione of the C minor trio, the players allow the music’s lyricism to blossom. Thank God there’s none of that ugly, “authentic” string timbre, with squeezed sustained notes and clipped phrasing. In short, if you’re in the market for this repertoire, then you should seriously consider acquiring this disc. The engineering, it’s worth adding, is very good too: warm, clear, and well balanced.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2011

It is over four years ago since the first disc in the complete Beethoven string trios appeared, its unfussy performances being much recommended. Beethoven composed just a handful of works in the genre, all coming from his early twenties, and seemingly the first tentative steps towards composing string quartets. It is the happiness of youth that permeates the first of his opus 9 trios, the scherzo and finale bubbling with a mischievous good humour. By contrast the second opens in more serious mood with moments of drama both here and in the following slow movement. Even the Minuet is thoughtful, while the finale is energetic rather than lighthearted. By the time he reached the Third he was offering a taste of a great composer in the making, the second movement full of the gravitas we would soon encounter in his string quartets. The scherzo is full of action, while the finale asks a lot of questions that remain unanswered when we reach the unexpected ending. As in the earlier disc, the three members from the Kodaly Quartet are in fine form, and if there are notes not absolutely in tune, it adds to the feeling of the spontaneity that we would expect from a ‘live’ performance. Leading violinist, Attila Falvay, gets around the highly decorated writing with admirable agility, the three players being perfectly balanced. In sum this, and its predecessor, offer a pair of discs that are eminently satisfying.

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