A Beethoven a day: This work broke himmain
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.