Beethoven: String Trios Op. 9 / Falvay, Fejervari, Eder

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BEETHOVEN String Trios, op. 9: Nos. 1–3 Attila Falvay (vn); János Fejérvári (va); György Éder (vc) NAXOS 8.572377 (73:41)

This completes Naxos’s survey of Beethoven’s string trios performed by members of the Kodály Quartet. The first volume, containing the op. 3 Trio and the op. 8 Serenade, received a positive review from Bart Verhaeghe in Fanfare 30:5. This second installment, recorded in 2008, seems a bit late in coming, but is no less welcome for that. It’s not unknown for Naxos to sit on new recordings, sometimes for years, before releasing them, and this one is no exception; it wasn’t released until January of this year.

Surprisingly, competition in this arena is not that strong. Back in 2006 (29:3) I dismissed as “decaffeinated” the Zurich String Trio’s performances on Brilliant Classics. And while I’ve enjoyed the Kandinsky Trio’s recording of the op. 9 trios on Arte Nova, the set I reach for most often when I’m in the mood for Beethoven’s string trios is the Leopold String Trio’s two-disc set on Hyperion.

The truth is I don’t find myself that often in the mood for Beethoven’s string trios, which is why on those occasions when I do listen to them I’m amazed all over again at what a radical departure they are from earlier models and at how they must have shocked their first hearers. Of course, in saying that these works pose a radical departure from earlier models, one must ask what models Beethoven is departing from. It’s not as if the string trios before Beethoven litter the landscape like so much confetti after New Year’s Eve. Yes, Boccherini wrote a whole bunch (about 65 of them), but they’re not all for the standard complement of violin, viola, and cello. Haydn wrote even more, something like 125, but they’re for viola, cello, and baryton, and of his other string trios (35 or more), most, as far as I know, are written for two violins and cello. I’m sure there are other composers from around this time who thought a violin, viola, and cello made for a satisfying ensemble, but mainly we’re left with Mozart and his one exceptional contribution to the genre, the Divertimento in E?-Major, K 563.

Mozart’s trio becomes the point of departure for Beethoven’s first trio, the E?-Major, op. 3. It’s not only the same key it shares with Mozart’s piece but the divertimento-like format of six movements with two menuettos, one of them with two trio sections. Four years separate this first of Beethoven’s string trios (1794) from the set of three op. 9 trios of 1798. The intervening Serenade, op. 8, of a year earlier, is also a six-movement, divertimento-styled work. But the contrasts between these two previous efforts and the op. 9 set are palpable.

The Sturm und Drang shock of the C-Minor work in the group is remarkable. Listen to the slashing chords in the first movement and the ferocious accents and off-the-beat rhythms in the second strain of the scherzo. This is music of a primal, visceral force, and there’s no precedent for it, not Boccherini, not Haydn, and not Mozart. It comes out of nowhere, and it’s hard to imagine the reaction of those who first heard it.

Yet it’s not just the C-Minor Trio, subversive as it is of the established norms of late 18th-century chamber music, that is so amazing. Take the run off the harmonic rails that occurs at the outset of the development section in the first movement of the G-Major Trio. We’ve ended the exposition, according to Hoyle, in D Major. Then, suddenly, without preparation, we find ourselves hovering somewhere between B?- and E?-Major. But that’s just a forewarning of the harmonic train wreck in the making. Each of the next 40 or so chromatic bars is like another car in a seemingly endless convoy careening off the tracks. It’s as if what it actually sounded like didn’t matter to Beethoven, and he wasn’t even deaf yet. The aim was not to write music that was pretty, but to deliberately jar and jolt.

Generally, it’s accepted that Beethoven’s string trios laid the groundwork for the op. 18 quartets that followed not long after. To the extent that the trios provided the composer with valuable experience in writing for strings, I would agree. But I don’t agree that we ought to dismiss the trios as little more than preparatory exercises for the quartets. Not only do the trios already exhibit Beethoven’s breakaway from the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, considering what he was able to accomplish with only three instruments, I think these trios are really quite extraordinary works.

The performances here by three members of the famed Kodály Quartet are excellent and very satisfying. In a direct A-B comparison with the Leopold Trio, I’d have to give a slight edge to the latter, especially in the C-Minor Trio, for the speed and hairpin accuracy of cross-rhythm accenting in the scherzo movement. But Attila Falvay, János Fejérvári, and György Éder play with real bite and, where appropriate, pratfall humor, as in the first movement of the D-Major Trio. I also prefer Naxos’s ever-so-slightly reverberant acoustic to the somewhat dry, airless sound Hyperion gives the Leopold ensemble. So, on balance, I’d say you can’t go wrong with this very fine release. Together with its companion volume containing the op. 3 and op. 8 trios, this earns a winning and strong recommendation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins


Beethoven's string trios stand among his earliest masterpieces, fully the equal of his early quartets. They are the greatest works in their medium after Mozart's great Divertimento K. 563, and they are boldly and excitingly performed here by three members of the Kodály Quartet. One of the best aspects of the playing is the fact that the music sounds like Beethoven--that is, gutsy and even a touch rough (try the opening Allegro con brio of the G major trio), but never coarse. You just know that this isn't a pale imitation of Mozart, but a vibrant new musical voice.

Then, in the cantabile adagio of the same work, or in the Adagio con espressione of the C minor trio, the players allow the music's lyricism to blossom. Thank God there's none of that ugly, "authentic" string timbre, with squeezed sustained notes and clipped phrasing. In short, if you're in the market for this repertoire, then you should seriously consider acquiring this disc. The engineering, it's worth adding, is very good too: warm, clear, and well balanced.

--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8572377

  • UPC: 747313237777

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Kodály String Quartet members

  • Performer: Attila Falvay, Gyorgy Eder, Janos Fejervari