Beethoven: Piano Trios Nos. 1-5; 14 Variations on an Original Theme; 10 Variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu”; Trio Movement in E Flat, Hess 48; Trio in E Flat, WoO 38; “Archduke” Trio; & Trio Movement in B Flat, WoO 39. Abegg Trio. Tacet 76 (61:54); Tacet 77 (61:50); Tacet 78 (59:50); & Tacet 79 (63:40).

These four volumes contain scores written by Beethoven that were intended for piano trio. The CDs contain eleven such works, although it’s a stretch to call them all piano trios, per se. There are in fact seven compositions that are today called trios; these are the standard six, culminating with the “Archduke” Trio, plus a three-movement seventh trio in E Flat that was published in Frankfurt in 1830. The other four works consist of two sets of variations and two isolated trio movements.

The sets under review, recorded 1986-88, were previously available here on the Intercord label [so] these Tacet CDs fall into the “reissue” category (although nowhere is this stated in the documentation).

The Abegg Trio‘s members — pianist Gerrit Zitterbart (who plays a Bösendorfer Imperial), violinist Ulrich Beetz, and cellist Birgit Erichson — offer animated, incisive performances that are beautifully played. They have consulted Carl Czerny’s 1842 book on Beethoven (which was, coincidentally, published in Vienna by Diabelli), and they have used, to the extent possible, tempo indications added by this famous Beethoven pupil. The results will doubtless fascinate main-streamers who have been little exposed to the lean, fleet approach espoused by “original instruments” practitioners. Those who have experienced the blessings (and occasional curses, too) of the period-instrument movement will likely not be as surprised by the tempi selected by the Abegg Trio as might have been the case twenty or more years ago.

Taken together, these releases are of considerable importance. The last volume includes not only the “Archduke” Trio but also a three-movement trio in E Flat dated c.1791 that was published in Frankfurt in 1830 and two isolated trio movements, the first from the same period as the foregoing (or perhaps as early as 1784) and the second, from 1812. None of the obscure works is likely to displace the standard canon of familiar trios, but the fact that collectors may obtain all of them at once in a single package makes these CDs particularly attractive. The results are fascinating at every turn — these are bracing renditions, and the entire set of four CDs is highly recommended, even to those who are already intimately familiar with these scores.

There are informative notes by Jan Reichow, nicely translated into English by Diana Loos; these are bolstered by reproductions of parts of Czerny’s book. Readers of the English version of the notes with Vol. IV will discover that the text, which terminates in mid-sentence on page 6 of the booklet, resumes on page 21 — with neither “continued on…” nor “continued from…” indications.

In the “integral edition” department, there is less direct competition than one might imagine, and although individual recordings of the various scores might stand out more than some of these, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a handier package than the present one. Current direct competition is limited to Barenboim, Zukerman, and du Pré (on EMI) — indispensable for admirers of the cellist although the interpretations are sometimes a bit over the top — and the Fontenay Trio (on Teldec).

Completists should know that Beethoven’s Op. 11 Trio, intended for piano, clarinet or violin, and cello, has been recorded in both sanctioned versions, and that a piano trio arrangement of the Second Symphony was for a time available from Archive. This latter item is not listed in New Grove, but current scholarship indicates that the transcription, by Ferdinand Ries, was approved by Beethoven.

One final note: Fans of Schumann’s piano music will know that this Trio’s name appears in the title of that romantic master’s Op. 1. There is no mention of this in the brief biographical information with these Tacet releases, but the group has recorded several piano trios by the Schumanns (Clara and Robert), too.

Curious about the group’s name, we contacted Tacet and heard back from Andreas Spreer, who confirmed that “Abegg” does stem from the Schumann composition, which is of course for solo piano. Through 1989, Spreer was executive producer for Intercord, and he was thus responsible for all of the Abegg Trio’s discs. Intercord was taken over by EMI, and ultimately the Trio bought back the rights. Tacet has reissued all of them — over 20 recordings, all made in the same venue, nearly all using a Bösendorfer Imperial piano that was maintained by the same tuner, and all produced by Spreer. Cover art for the series is by the late Horst Janssen, who among other things designed the Abegg Trio’s logo.

The Abegg Trio’s distinguished series of recordings for Tacet also include numerous more recent CDs.

NC readers have a rare opportunity to hear nearly all of Beethoven’s music for piano trio as performed by the Abegg Trio of Weimar and Hannover, Germany, during the 2007 September Prelude, when UNC, the Chamber Arts Society, and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild present three days of concerts, starting September 7. For details, click here [inactive 8/10].

John W. Lambert © 1999 & 2007.

Note: These reviews were originally published in Fanfare, Vol. 22, No. 6 (July/August 1999), & in Vol. 23, No. 1 (September/October 1999). The copy has been lightly edited for republication here.