A Discography of Beethoven's Chamber Music-Everything but the String Quartets. (Sound Recording Reviews)

By Fleming, Elizabeth | Notes, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Discography of Beethoven's Chamber Music-Everything but the String Quartets. (Sound Recording Reviews)

Fleming, Elizabeth, Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven is such a universally revered composer that recordings of his works form a significant part of most classical recording collections. While many discographies of Beethoven's music have highlighted the numerous excellent recordings of his symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets, it is rare to find essays devoted to recordings of his chamber music for instrumental combinations other than the string quartet. This essay will provide a discography of currently available recordings of Beethoven's chamber music and endeavor to cover all instrumental chamber works except the string quartets. (1) Works are presented according to frequency of recording, beginning with the compositions most often recorded and ending with those that are recorded less often, followed by an overview of recordings that feature an assortment of Beethoven's chamber works. Thus, titles appear in the essay and the discography in this order: Piano Trios, Quintet for Piano and Wind Instruments, Septet, String Trios, Ce llo Sonatas, Violin Sonatas, Horn Sonata, Collections.

The term "chamber music" needs clarification in this context, particularly since it is often used ambiguously as an umbrella term that may be applied to any composition that does not fit well into such other standard classifications as symphony or concerto. For instance, Barnes and Noble stores include recordings of songs and lieder along with piano sonatas and other works for solo piano in their chamber music sections; this is true in both their brick-and-mortar and their online stores. Amazon.com organizes its online catalog in a similar manner. In this article, however, the term will refer to works for combinations of two or more instruments, and not to piano sonatas, other compositions for solo piano, or lieder collections.


Perhaps the most frequently recorded of Beethoven's instrumental chamber works that fall into the categories under discussion here are the piano trios. There are nine works of this type with opus numbers, beginning with the three trios of opus 1, written early in his career during the 1790s, continuing through opus 97, which was written between 1810 and 1811. Five other works with either Hess or WoO numbers are also among Beethoven's piano trio compositions. (2) Several cycles of the complete piano trios are available, the most impressive being a 1992 recording by the Beaux Arts Trio on the Phillips label (reissued at midprice in 2001 as 289 468 411-2). Another notable cycle is the 1989 remastering of the recordings by Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, and Jacqueline du Pre (EMI Classics 63124). While the Beaux Arts Trio's interpretation is all dignified refinement, the Barenboim/Zukerman/du Pre combination exudes a more intense, emotional expressiveness.

Recordings of Beethoven's piano trios are also readily available in period-instrument performances. The most appealing historically-informed performances of these works are those by the Castle Trio. There are three compact discs by this group issued separately by three different record companies that include the entire set of piano trios. (3) These recordings all exemplify the best characteristics of sensitive historical performance.

The two most frequently recorded of Beethoven's piano trios, op. 70, no. 1, commonly referred to as the "Ghost" Trio, and op. 97, the "Archduke" Trio, are often paired together in recordings that do not include the whole cycle of piano trios. The best pairing of these two works is also recorded on historical instruments, a 2000 Sony Classical release featuring Vera Beths, Anner Bylsma, and Jos van Immerseel (Sony 51353). Recording original instruments is often difficult because of the unique acoustical challenges such instruments can pose, but the recording techniques used for this recording are masterfully executed, as are the performances.


One of Beethoven's compositions is commonly paired on recordings with a similar work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: this is Beethoven's opus 16, the Quintet for Piano and Wind Instruments, the second most frequently recorded of Beethoven's chamber works which seems almost invariably to be paired with Mozart's Quintet K.

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