In the same month as this disc was recorded Harmonia Mundi were adding the finishing touches to an eagerly awaited complete recording of the Beethoven Piano Trios by Trio Wanderer – a magnificent achievement that went straight to the top of the list of complete sets. Apart from explaining the delay issuing the disc under review, I wonder whether the conflict of repertoire influenced the decision to record in period style with an original fortepiano or if it was a purely artistic decision, either way I’m not sure the choice was 100% right. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not averse to period instrument performance in this repertoire and the players here are three of the finest of their generation. A few years ago Melnikov and Faust recorded a stunning set of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas on modern instruments, performed with incredible expressive intensity and hyper-alert intelligence, with Melnikov’s transcendental virtuosity allowing him free reign to colour and shape each note. Here his voice is muted by the dynamic restrictions of the fortepiano and one gets a sense that Faust and Queyras are constantly having to pull back to blend. That said, the fortepiano, a restored Alois Graf from 1828, is exquisite with a pellucid beauty of tone that belies its age and Melnikov carefully coaxes as much as he can out of it without ever making an ugly sound. 

Faust and Queyras are predictably superb with an infinite variety of tone on offer, despite their sparing use of vibrato, and shape every phrase with dramatic rhetorical gestures without resorting to pretentious mannerisms. This is chamber playing on an exalted level with three supremely intelligent artists at the peak of their powers listening to one another and generating sparks of high voltage music-making. Note the perfectly judged diminuendo at the close of the second movement of Op. 70 No 2; the three voices in perfect formation receding into the distance. Or the plaintive husky tones in the third movement like a virtuosic hurdy-gurdy with Queyras relishing a meaty drone at the end of the movement. 

The Archduke is thankfully not the usual big bash one encounters but quicksilver and ghostly by turns; they make more than most of the strange imitative groping in the dark passages of the Scherzo and the slow movement is breathtakingly beautiful. ‘Tis a shame Harmonia Mundi have delivered yet another perfectly natural recording as a slightly less accurate balance may have allowed one to hear more of that beautiful fortepiano. Despite my quibble over a stylistic choice these are remarkable performances.

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