A Beethoven a Day: Troubles come in threes

A Beethoven a Day: Troubles come in threes


norman lebrecht

January 18, 2020

Welcome to the 15th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Triple concerto, opus 56 (1803-4)

The piano trio – violin, cello, keyboard – was the first work of Beethoven’s to find a publisher and he kept looking for ways to develop the form. His most ambitious effort, at the turn of the 19th century, was to write a concerto for piano trio and full orchestra. The work is a failure, a noble and ultimately absurd attempt by a superchef to see if ice-cream goes with mustard and cheese.

Any amateur can see why it won’t work. A concerto is a balance between conductor, orchestra and soloist whose role is to be first among equals. When there are three soloists, none is primus. The maestro, orchestra and the trio are never quite sure who’s in charge. For the listener, it’s no less confusing. Beethoven spins our heads from one centre of gravity to another. It can be quite wearing.

Sometimes, however, the triple pays out. A 1949 recording by Bruno Walter, always so assured in Beethoven, and principals of the New York Philharmonic – John Corigliano and Leonard Rose with the pianist Walter Hendl – has about it a freshness and an infectious naivety that is hard to resist.

Leonard Bernstein, leading the same orchestra from the piano in 1959 with Corigliano and Laszlo Varga, is considerably less convincing.

Ferenc Fricsay, a Hungarian refugee in charge of the Berlin radio orchestra in the year the Wall went up, finds an ominous note in the opening and sustains a tension that I have never experienced in any other performance. His 1961 soloists are Géza Anda (Piano), Wolfgang Schneiderhan (Violin), Pierre Fournier (Violoncello). Do not overlook this dazzling and timely interpretation.

The most expensive recording of the triple concerto was made by EMI in Berlin eight years later with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and three premier Soviet exports: David Oistrakh (violin), Sviatoslav Richter (piano) and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. There are two ways of describing how awful it is. One is to read Richter’s recollection: ‘It’s a dreadful recording and I disown it utterly… Battle lines were drawn up with Karajan and Rostropovich on the one side and Oistrakh and me on the other… Suddenly Karajan decided that everything was fine and that the recording was finished. I demanded an extra take. ‘No, no,’ he replied, ‘we haven’t got time, we’ve still got to do the photographs.

The other is to compare is to compare it to the Soviet Melodiya recording where the same soloists, who were never friends, gave a 1972 concert in Moscow, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin and conveying, despite poor sound quality, a unity of purpose that they never approached in Berlin.

Other options in the triple concerto are topped by the Beaux Arts Trio – so used to playing together they are equivalent to a single soloist – with the London Philharmonic and Bernard Haitink in 1977. Bernard Greenhouse on cello is especially evocative.

A 1994 Leipzig retake by a different Beaux Arts formation and Kurt Masur is less cohesive.

George Szell’s Cleveland recording with Isaac Stern (Violin), Leonard Rose (Violoncello), Eugene Istomin (Piano) has plenty of fury but not clean enough sound.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 2004 modern instrument account with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Thomas Zehetmair (Violin), Clemens Hagen (Violoncello), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano) is particularly captivating in the short Largo central movement.

And then there’s Martha Argerich in at least three recordings, of which I prefer the most recent, 2019, with Ion Marin, Hamburger Symphoniker, Martha Argerich (Piano), Mischa Maisky (Violoncello), Tedi Papavrami (Violin) – where everyone seems to dance attendance on the pianist who is in a world of her own. Just inspired.



  • Leonard Ratzlaff says:

    Thanks for this – however, could you credit the photo? Looks very much like cellist Amanda Forsyth.

  • MusicBear88 says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. If the “solo” part is played by a piano trio that is a totally cohesive unit like the Beaux Arts was, this piece can very definitely work with a very unusual texture. Here in Boston, Triple Helix has done it with a couple of local orchestras very nicely. Three soloists who aren’t aligned will just be a mess.

  • V. Lind says:

    Why do you use a photo of Amanda Forsyth who plays this with her husband Pinchas Zukerman and their crony Yefim Bronfman but not mention the recording?

  • fflambeau says:

    Keep them coming; these are wonderful comparisons, although I don’t agree with many of the conclusions

    I think, for example, this is hugely wrong: “The work is a failure, a noble and ultimately absurd attempt by a superchef to see if ice-cream goes with mustard and cheese.
    Any amateur can see why it won’t work. A concerto is a balance between conductor, orchestra and soloist whose role is to be first among equals. When there are three soloists, none is primus.”

    True unless they are distinguished and highly professional musicians, who can set all that aside. Many performers have done so.

    The Szell recording with Stern, Rose and Istomin, is a bevy of super stars all who all perform well.

    Here’s a more recent super star group that you missed (and it doesn’t get much better): Berlin Philharmonic, with Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma.

    Or: The Israel Philharmonic
    Zubin Mehta – conductor
    Yefim Bronfman – piano
    Pinchas Zukerman – violin
    Amanda Forsyth – cello

    Another superb modern grouping: K. Masur conducts the London Philharmonic with Lynn Harrell; Anne Sofia Mutter; and Andre Previn on the piano. Wow!

    It has been much recorded.

    An old great: Toscanini leading the New York Philharmonic with Wallenstein, Carreras, and Piastro.

    Another older great version: by a hugely talented Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra with Isaac Stern: violin, Leonard Rose: cello, Eugene Istomin: piano.

  • Calvin says:

    I am in agreement that, given the composition, this may be a valedictorian-of-summer school assessment, but the Kalichstein/Laredo/Robinson recording is a top contender for that potentially dubious distinction.

  • Mark Hildrew says:

    The photo is of somebody (Zuckerman’s wife) you don’t mention. Although admittedly she has played the triple cto

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Fricsay et al and the Beaux Arts with Haitink are my preferred choices.
    I’ve only heard the Harnoncourt recording once, but I remember liking it.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    The Triple Concert was in fact Beethoven’s Cello Concert – it contains the most beautiful passages by Beethoven for this instrument that has a leading function especially in the first movement, and the transition of the slow movement to the last is simply magnificent. Pierre Fournier plays it wonderfully with Schneiderhan and Anda conducted by Fricsay – an essential recording.

  • pjl says:

    ARGERICH was scheduled to play it on 12 May in Oxford with MM & Vengerov but has been replaced by Mr Babyan (

  • Michael D says:

    There is an incredible recording with Gil Shaham, Truls Mørk, and Yefim Bronfman, conducted by David Zinman with Tonhalle Zurich.

  • Waldstein says:

    Every time when I think that N. L. can write an interesting review, I found otherwise. In a Richard Osborne biography of H.v.K. there is totally different view of that recording by Rostropovich (and Oistrakh). Also in this article there is no mention of another excellent recording from Berlin, also with Karajan but with much younger soloists: Mutter, Zelster and YoY o Ma. Berliner Philharmoniker recorded it once more (live recording) with Barenboim, Perlman and Ma.

    • Novagerio says:

      Waldstein: NL is quoting Sviatoslav Richter from the Enigma movie by Monsaingeon.
      Of course, I rather hear Richter criticize Karajan than NL (who trashes Karajan at every third “article”…)

  • ira says:

    maybe because it was the first one I heard, weingartner, Vienna philharmonic, odnoposoff, auber and morales. does anyone remember it?

  • Tom Varley says:

    “George Szell’s Cleveland recording with Isaac Stern (Violin), Leonard Rose (Violoncello), Eugene Istomin (Piano) has plenty of fury but not clean enough sound.”

    Do you mean the recording Stern, Rose and Istomin made with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1964?

  • Edgar Self says:

    Fricsay with Anda, Schneiderhan, and Fournier I like better than Karajan and his all stars. The last moveent is one of Beethoven’s rare three polonaises.

    Michelangeli played it at the Edinburgh Festival I wish it had been recorded. Gioconda di Vito may have been the violinist.

    The first recording around 1936 was by the VPO, Weingartner, Angelica Morales-Sauer, Ricrdo Odnoposoff, and Stefan Auber. zzzzzthis work gets a bad press, but I like it very much.

    • Dan oren says:

      Furtwängler was the conductor in this Edinburgh festival concert.
      Another beautiful(live) recording features Ferras. Heidsieck and Tortelier in Paris with Martinon and l’orchestre national.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    If Istomin, Stern and Rose recorded the Triple Concerto with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and I don’t think they did, I am not aware of it. They did record it with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orch., and it was reissued to fill out Leon Fleischer’s CD set of the complete piano concertos which indeed does feature Szell/Cleveland.

    I second the motion on the Fricsay/Anda/Schneiderhan/Fournier recording. The recorded sound holds up, too, but oddly where NL hears ominous tension I hear Fricsay and his star soloists capturing how really funny this music is. Absurdity abounds and when Schneiderhan digs into the Polonaise rhythm in the finale as if a rough country fiddler has wandered on stage to intrude on a very formal “Akademie,” one can actively imagine the composer enjoying the sensation of just “piling on.”

    One other (but very different) recording I enjoy, and I think I mentioned it in passing while commenting on the “Archduke” Trio recently (since the Triple Concerto was also written for the Archduke Rudolph to play), is the Suk Trio: Josef Chuchro, Josef Suk, Jan Panenka with (and this surprised me) Kurt Masur leading the Czech Philharmonic. Recorded in 1973. Supraphon 11 0707-2 if anyone wants to track it down.

    Mr. Lebrecht, why not make it an Archduke Rudolph trifecta – have the next Beethoven work to be featured be the Piano and Violin Sonata No. 10.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Interestingly, a concerto for two soloists and orchestra can be entirely rewarding: double concerto for 2 vl + orch by Bach, sinfonia concertante by Mozart, double concerto by Brahms. Beethoven’s mixing of genres tends to be neutralizing instead of enriching, the same with the choral fantasy. In the 9th however, it does work.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    One of the most messy performances (and even Previn said so) was at the Lenny 60th birthday concert: Menuhin, Rostropovich, Previn at piano and Lenny conducting.

    • Jan Kaznowski says:

      ==why not make it an Archduke Rudolph trifecta ?

      Yes, whilst I’m enjoying this series it does seem a bit backwards and forwards. A bit of structure would help

  • Edgar Self says:

    They play as a trio , especially in the adagio, as in Brandenbiurg Five. It;s close to a concerto grosso and could be a result of Beethoven’s studies of Handel, like his Piano Trio No.6 in E-flat, or his only Chaconne that he called 32 Variations in C minor on an original theme, WoO. The double-stopped passage work for violin and cello recalls Vivaldi.

    I cant consider the triple concerto a failure at all, but rather an unusual work for its author, with a Baroque sound.

  • Adieu says:

    The photo used without any credit is of Amanda Forsyth… accompanying a shallow critical review of one of Beethoven’s monumental works with far more picking on poor recordings than discussing anything of musical merit. It seems the only criticism made is that the author is confused and doesn’t know where to listen without the clear title of a single “soloist” to direct his attention. Why write so much about the worst recordings you can find as proof of the triple concerto’s ‘poor quality” if you really do have any original comments about the music itself? Claiming that the music is a failure because Rostropovich, Oistrakh, and Richter had a personal dispute is frankly ridiculous

  • Novagerio says:

    “Any amateur can see why it won’t work. A concerto is a balance between conductor, orchestra and soloist whose role is to be first among equals. When there are three soloists, none is primus” – well, with this logic, you could aswell say that Opera is not music. Well – yes, where there’s no agreement, there’s chaos.
    The very meaning of making music is being attuned to each other and bring the “chamber musical” dimension to the bigger things, like concertos, operas etc.

  • Roberto says:

    Gordan Nikolitch, Tim Hugh and Lars Vogt with Haitink conducting the LSO. Lovely recording. I don’t need any other.

  • microview says:

    Thus far no-one has mentioned the 1964 Columbia LP with Serkin, Laredo, Parnas, Schneider conducting the Marlboro Festival Orchestra *****

  • Piano Lover says:

    Richter often disliked HIS OWN recordings …which finally remain as treasures…..so I don’t give much credit to his critics.

  • M McAlpine says:

    The ‘most expensive version’ was also the best selling version of all time. Seems the public didn’t agree with Richter. Mind you, they didn’t agree with him about a lot of his recordings he said he didn’t like. He even said he didn’t like himself but we still liked his playing. And the terrific recording by Stern, Rose, Istomin was conducted by Ormandy not Szell. As for the work being a failure? Why do such vastly distinguished musicians record it then? Do they know something you don’t?

  • Philip Greenfield says:

    The truth is that–like the “Choral Fantasy”–the “Triple”, flawed or not, is delightful Beethoven that continues to throw off sparks of joy and excitement to anyone willing to be reached by it. And the neat thing about this somewhat ironic thread is that there are more good recordings of it than bad; both Karajans, the Beaux Arts, Barenboim/Perlman & YoYo on EMI, Serkin from Marlboro, Harnoncourt, Zinman, Fricsay, the Czechs, the London Haitink, and some of the others listed are all pretty fine and dandy in my book. And with Mutter/Ma/Danny already in the can, there are probably more on the way. So there.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    BBC Music Magazine cited the Karajan recording with Richeter et al as best historic recording when they reviewed different versions of this work.

    As I was a student at the time of its release, I must now be considered historic.

    It is fascinating how different people have different views in the wonderful genre of classical music. I have read others write that the triple concerto is his best concerto.

    It’s good to have strong views, but also to respect that others may feel differently.

    Norman didn’t get where he is by being bland.