A Beethoven a day: This work broke him

A Beethoven a day: This work broke him


norman lebrecht

January 13, 2020

Welcome to the tenth work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

10 Archduke trio, opus 97

The second performance of the Archduke Trio in May 1814 was the last time Beethoven ever played the piano in public. Deafness had cost him aural balance. His forte jangled unbearably and his piano was inaudible. The most sought-after pianist in Vienna had lost his volume control.

Tragic infirmities aside, the work – dedicated to the Emperor’s youngest son Archduke Rudolf, a useful patron – was another leap forward for a composer who had advanced the art of music further than any musician before or since. The Archduke Trio, has a pair of jaunty opening movements that darken into a conversation on something deeper, possibly the meaning of life. The third movement, marked ‘antante cantabile’ is a foretaste of the muted opening of the 4th piano concerto; the finale, supposedly carefree, is freighted with foreboding. At 35 minutes it is longer than Beethoven would have expected a wealthy audience to tolerate. Maybe he was past caring. Or just in the grip of genius.

The earliest recording, from 1928, by the French pianist Alfred Cortot and violinist Jacques Thibaud, with the Spaniard Pablo Casals on cello, is unsurpassed in my view for concentration, vivacity and integration.

I asked my friend Luis Sunen, former editor of Spain’s Scherzo magazine, for additional recommendations. He came back, within minutes, with these: Beaux Arts Trio (first period), Végh-Casals-Horszowski, Szering-Fournier-Kempf, Kogan-Rostropovich-Gilels, Zukerman-DuPré-Barenboim, Chung Trio and, more modern, Trio Wanderer, Mullova-Schiff-Previn, Florestan Trio and, above all, Faus, Queyras, Melnikov . Wow.

To these I would add the 2019 account by Hagai Shaham, Raphael Wallfisch and Arnon Erez, sweetly unassuming and overwhelmingly musical.

So, top picks: Thibaud , Beaux Arts, Kogan  Szering, Mullova, Shaham.


  • Fergie says:

    First movement jaunty?! are you sure?
    Could you please explain how this work could be a foretaste of one written five years earlier. And I really don’t hear much in common between the Archduke variation movement and the dialogue between piano and orchestra which opens the 4th concerto. Really, a piece of such substance deserves more than a passing glance…

  • Petros Linardos says:

    The Kogan-Rostropovich-Gilels is available in a precious set of recordings by this legendary team. I particularly love their interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Trio op.50.


  • fflambeau says:

    A very nice essay. I like these historical reviews so keep them coming.

    I did one on my own for Des Abends by Robert Schumann and also found Cortot among the top choices. (Also leading the pack were Benno Moiseiwitsch and Wilhelm Bachaus).

    Interesting that in most of these reviews, the older pianists fare better than the modern ones: is this correct? Is there a reason for this: homoginization of skills due to teaching, recordings etc?

    A really good subject might be: whether the older musicians were in fact better than their contemporaries?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      “in most of these reviews, the older pianists fare better”

      This just shows Norman’s age; he likes the recordings he grew up with (nothing wrong with that). You should not assume this means the older pianists were any better.

  • Novagerio says:

    You were in a hurry; Kempff & Szeryng, and I presume you mean Isabelle Faust with Queyras and Melnikov?

  • Eyal Braun says:

    I Just heard Shacham Erez and Wallfisch this weekend in Haifa performing the Archduke trio- they performed a complete cycle of the trios in our chamber music society. A magical performance. Chamber music of the highest possible level. I will listen to there recent recording. Thanks for the recommendation

  • David K. Nelson says:

    The Archduke Rudolph himself was by no means a negligible composer in his own right, and my former Fanfare colleague Susan Kagan made him her special study, and as a pianist recorded an interesting disc of his music with Josef Suk.

    From the Trio, the Triple Concerto, and the Piano and Violin Sonata No. 10, all written for him, I think we can judge and rank Archduke Rudolph’s abilities as a pianist fairly highly but not perhaps to a genuine virtuoso level of his teacher.

    Speaking of Suk, he made a lovely recording of the “Archduke” Trio with his long time partners Josef Chuchro and Jan Panenka. Supraphon reissued it on CD with the Triple Concerto if memory serves. I’d recommend it.

    Although Jascha Heifetz tended to be (but wasn’t always) a rather problematic figure for chamber music recordings, I certainly think his “Archduke” 78s with Rubenstein and the amazing Feuermann is an important one that deserves to be listened to closely.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Agreed, Norman. Thibeau, Cortot and Casals are unmatched in this work.

  • twirl says:

    What about Richter-Borodin Quartett (Kopelman, Berlinsky)? Live video from December evenings?

  • Eddgar Self says:

    The Chung family trio on EMI are ideal, and I’ll always have a soft spot for Cortot-Thibaud-Casals. But my choice is Rubinstein-Heifez-Feuermann, autumnal rather than jaunty in the primo. The dialogue between Feuermann and Rubinstein in the andante is unmatched. Liszt orchestrated that movement.

    Flambeau doesn’t miss a step with Moiseiwitsch and Cortot in Schumann’s “Des Abends” from “Fantasiestuecke”, of which Cortot recorded just the first piece. DI give the palm to Moiseiwitsch for phenomenal pedalling, holding the first note of many phrases into a phosphorescent wash of succeeding ones, repeating hismagic in “Warum” that follows a little later.

    Nice going, Flambeau, even with Sofronitzki and Richter into the balance, Benno takes the cake. Never heard his equal in these piece, or the great Fantasy in C..

    I detect snippet quotations from the Archduke scherzo and Ghost Trio finale in Schubert’s greatest trio, the E-flat Op. 100, a tip of the hat to show he knew them. Adolf and Hermann Busch with Srkin get it right in their second version for Columbia, although Elly Ney’s Trio over-all is the best Ghost I’ve ever heard. Edwin Fischer’s are just below these high marks. Nowadays I like to hear Schubert’s E-flat in the uncut version with hundred-bar cut restored in the finale, including one unique combination of themes. What a great trio.

    I heard a marvelous live performance of the Archduke a few years ago by Ilya Kaler, cellist Amit Peled, and their pianist, Goldstein?, at a Myra Hess Memorial concert in Chicago’s Preston Bradley Hall.

    • fflambeau says:

      Thanks Eddgar. I’m not a good pianist so I could not describe BM’s skills as you have but his sound was simply amazing: agreed on that. I also thought Backhaus was very good on Des Abends.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    It’s wonderful hearing and reading about Beethoven; you cannot get enough of him and 2020 is yet another excuse to continue that trend.

  • Eddgar Self says:

    Re your “Des Abends” comparisons, Flambeau, Backhaus is also excellent in Schumann’s “Waldszenen”, especilly the final “Abschied”.

  • Edgar Self says:

    His birth name was Bachaus, changed to Baackhaus by early managers to avoid rude comments.

  • Roberto says:

    Ashkenazy, Perlman and Harrell. They were so good!!!