Beethoven Trios: Beyond Archduke

Beethoven Trios: Beyond Archduke

Written by Anne E. Johnson

One of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most beloved works of chamber music is the so-called Archduke Trio, named after the Austrian nobleman it was dedicated to. But the Archduke is only one of over 20 pieces Beethoven wrote for three players. The majority of his trios are for violin, cello, and piano (the combination called a “piano trio”), but there are also other mixes, with and without piano, and some involving only winds. Musicians never seem to tire of recording these skillful works, as several recent releases attest.

The new recordings join a long list of previous forays into Beethoven’s trio output, some of which are just now being transferred to digital. Among those is the four-volume set of the piano trios by the Abegg Trio, a German chamber ensemble active until 2017. Originally released in the 1980s, this series has recently become available on streaming services via the Tacet label. From the mighty Archduke (which you’ll find in Volume IV) to the smallest single-movement pieces like the Allegretto in B-flat Major, WoO 39, it includes everything Beethoven wrote in the genre.

One of the most striking things about these outstanding Abegg recordings is the rich cello sound of Birgit Erichson, reminiscent of Mstislav Rostropovich’s complex intensity. Erichson has ideal colleagues in violinist Ulrich Beetz and pianist Gerrit Zitterbart. Making these Beethoven interpretations more widely available was a true service to the world’s music lovers.


Because there are already so many recordings of the piano trios, some ensembles have tried for an original approach to adding Beethoven to their repertoire. A new release on Naxos has some surprising content: a new piano trio by Beethoven! Well, sort of. This album by violinist Duccio Ceccanti, cellist Vittorio Ceccanti, and pianist Matteo Fossi pays tribute to composer Carl Reinecke (1824 – 1910), including the world premiere recording of his piano trio. But the first few tracks are Beethoven’s Triple Concerto – originally for violin, cello, and piano plus orchestra – here played in Reinecke’s arrangement for piano trio alone.

In general, the re-instrumentation forces the piano to do too much heavy lifting, assigning it the impossible feat of replacing the orchestra. In the mid to late 19th century, these kinds of transcriptions were common (see Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of all of the Beethoven symphonies, for example). That is not to say they were a good idea, but they did reflect the popular fascination with the potential of the modern concert grand piano, an instrument that had not been around for very long.

Despite the work’s shortcomings, the players pull together effectively, and it is interesting to hear Reinecke’s theory of what might have gone on in Beethoven’s musical imagination as he was creating this piece (if you can set aside the significant fact that the composer did decide to add an orchestra). Call it a hypothetical draft. Here is the first movement:


Beethoven’s second-favorite type of three-instrument writing was the string trio: violin, viola, and cello. He produced five works for that combination. Because he wrote them all within the short period from 1796 – 1798, some scholars see them as exercises preparing him for the more complex string quartets to come. Even if this is true, the string trios are themselves wonderful pieces worth rerecording. Two ensembles – Trio Boccherini and Trio Arnold – seem to agree.

Trio Boccherini is a young group based in Berlin: violinist Suyeon Kang, violist Vicki Powell, and cellist Paolo Bonomini. Their two-volume set of the complete Beethoven String Trios on the GENUIN Classics label constitutes their recording debut.

It’s a bold start, full of promise for the ensemble’s future. These players have not only the minimal requirement for great Beethoven – virtuosic technique and a deep understanding of early Romanticism – but also a level of daring, even wildness, that turns their Beethoven voyage into a real adventure. Yet they never lose control and are able to capture great pathos when appropriate, as in the opening movement from String Trio Op. 9, No. 1.


Of the two recent collections of string trios, the Boccherini’s is by far the superior one, exhibiting emotional maturity, exquisite shaping of lines, and complex interplay among the instruments.

This is not to say that the other recording has nothing to recommend it. Also a very young group, Trio Arnold, formed in 2018, consists of Shuichi Okada on violin, Manuel Vioque-Judde on viola, and Bumjun Kim on cello. They made their studio debut with a recording of the three Opus 9 String Trios on the Mirare label.

Compared with the Trio Boccherini, the Arnold recording is both more careful and less nuanced. But there are passages of fine ensemble playing, as if the three were a single instrument, as can be heard in this Allegro from Op. 9, No. 3.


Beethoven’s piano trios and string trios tend to get all the attention, but the composer also wrote a handful of trios involving winds. About half of those pieces, however, are Beethoven’s own arrangements of compositions originally for other ensembles.

There are two such examples on the Paraty record label by members of a chamber collective called the DSCH – Shostakovich Ensemble. Its founder and artistic director, Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro, plays piano. He is joined by Pasqual Moraguès on clarinet and Adrian Brendel on cello.

The first work on the CD is the so-called Gassenhauer Trio, Beethoven’s arrangement of his Piano Trio No. 4, with the clarinet replacing the violin. The DSCH musicians approach the piece with a charming slyness in carefully coordinated phrasing. Notice in particular the lines of duet between Moraguès and Bredel in third movement:


This recording also includes the Clarinet Trio in E-flat, Op. 38; its musical material started life as Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20, which has no piano but does include clarinet, French horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and bass. In fact, the score for the trio version specifies that a bassoon can take over the cello part.

As with most composers of the late 18th century, Beethoven tended to write trios because he had only certain instrumentalists available or he needed to appease a patron who wanted something specific. That’s why he often re-used previously composed music – why not get some more mileage out of good ideas? It’s also worth mentioning that he used the trio format to pay tribute to a fellow compositional genius, Mozart. Beethoven’s Variations on “La ci darem la mano” in C, WoO 28, is a trio for two oboes and English horn, inventively exploring the beloved duet from the opera Don Giovanni.

Again and again, Beethoven proved that a threesome is the perfect way to make music.

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