Daniel Barenboim spent lockdown earlier this year practising the piano. One of the fruits of that intensive work has been his fifth complete recording of the Beethoven sonatas, together with the Diabelli Variations, which appeared in October. But Barenboim had already begun to revisit Beethoven for this year’s anniversary 12 months ago, when he performed the piano trios in two concerts in Berlin, with his violinist son Michael and the cellist Kian Soltani, both former members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Whether these new discs are taken directly from those live performances isn’t clear, but they were certainly recorded in the same venue, the Pierre Boulez Saal.
The numbering of Beethoven’s piano trios is confused, but there are seven works included in this set – the three that Beethoven designated as his official Op 1, the two works of Op 70, the first of them known as the Ghost Trio, and the Archduke Trio, Op 97, as well as the curious Kakadu Variations, with their deceptively late opus number, Op 121a. It’s exactly 50 years since Barenboim recorded these works with his first wife, the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and the violinist Pinchas Zukerman, performances that have become classics because of their energy, enthusiasm and brilliance, irresistible qualities that easily outweigh the lack of subtlety in some of the playing.
The new set is very different – more thoughtful, objective, and more nuanced than before, though no less brilliant when required. It’s not mentioned in the sleeve notes, but the crisp transparency of the sound of the piano’s upper register suggests that Barenboim is playing the instrument he had built to his own specification a few years ago; only a few passages, in the Kakadu Variations particularly, seem a little piano-heavy. Even in the slow movements of the Op 1 trios there are moments of genuine depth and introspection that seem to take the music well beyond 18th-century classicism, and it’s very often Soltani’s cello playing that leads the way, as it also does towards the otherworldly ending of the Archduke’s theme and variations. But all of these performances contain moments to cherish, even when they may not quite convince as a whole.
This week’s other pick
A brief mention for a new disc of Beethoven’s “other” piano trios, for piano, clarinet and cello, Op 11 and Op 38, which are brought together on a disc on the Paraty label from Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro, Pascal Moraguès and Adrian Brendel. Neither trio is especially profound – the six movements of Op 38 are Beethoven’s own reworking of his Op 20 Septet – but with Moraguès’s clarinet very much to the fore, these players invest both works with every bit of the elegance and feeling they need.