Beethoven for Three: Symphony No. 4 and Op. 97 "Archduke"

Beethoven for Three: Symphony No. 4 and Op. 97 "Archduke"

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Emanuel Ax continue on their thrilling Beethoven for Three journey through all the composer’s nine symphonies, this time showcasing No. 4. Deftly arranged here by pianist Shai Wosner, Symphony No. 4 is perhaps the least appreciated and known of all Beethoven’s nine symphonies, but in this trio’s hands it rightly emerges as one of the composer’s finest creations. In its trimmed-down scoring the anticipatory drama of the opening “Adagio” feels enhanced, while its explosion into the “Allegro vivace” is a thing of unbounded joy. The “Adagio” second movement feels epic, its details beautifully spotlit. There’s a muscular richness to the playing that goes a long way to mimicking the original scoring’s breadth and depth. There are, however, so many glorious subtleties, as if Beethoven’s workings were laid out on a table for all to see. This is also true in the rambunctious “Allegro vivace” third movement and “Allegro ma non troppo” finale where the music dances with unstoppable energy. This feels as much like a new chamber work as a fresh reading of a colossal masterpiece. Arranging large-scale works for small forces, whether piano duet, organ or, in this case, piano trio, is part of a long tradition. These scaled-down versions weren’t usually produced solely for the novelty—back in the 19th century and early 20th, they served a social purpose. Before the advent of recordings, audiences could only hear an orchestral performance at a live concert. Most neither had the means nor lived close enough to a venue large enough to hear great symphonic works in their original scorings. But experiencing them in chamber form was cost effective and, in the right arrangement, just as exciting. These arrangements also opened the doors for home performances, as Yo-Yo Ma explains to Apple Music 1’s Zane Lowe: “My good friend Manny Ax says that if you were interested in Beethoven’s symphonies in the 1800s up until the recording industry started happening, you might hear it twice in your life. The only other way you could hear it is if you played it yourself in a version for two pianos or for three people.” Ma likens the advent of recording technology to the printing press. “Before the printing press,” he says, “that’s how you got the Bible. Someone who could read would read from it, but you didn’t have your own copy. If you want a Beethoven Symphony cover, you’re not going to hear it any other place. You’ve got to do it yourself. That’s before Edison came along.” The album also includes a performance of Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio from 1811, a work of sweeping grandeur, poise, and humor that proves the perfect vehicle for these finest of musicians. There’s even almost a sense that the piece could have started life as a symphony, such is the emotional strength of their account.

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