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New Life for Old Masters

A welcome side effect of the escalating expense of producing new CD product is the raiding of the pre-digital (even pre-stereo and pre-LP) archives--unthinkable in 1983, when the digital compact disc was the new technological Wunderkind on the block. Then, industry-wide wisdom dictated that the new system would succeed only if represented by the sonic state of the art.

Such reasoning was responsible for new-tech remakes of much of the piano trio repertory by its most famous purveyors, the Beaux Arts Trio, who by the ‘80s were well past their prime.

Welcome, then, an intrepid little French firm, Ades (distributed by Harmonia Mundi), to remind us how the Beaux Arts achieved its stature, the evidence being 1962 recordings (originally for Philips) of Dvorak’s “Dumky” and Mendelssohn’s D-minor Trios, in superbly clear, full-bodied pre-digital stereo sound.

Here (on CD 13.273) is playing as fierily, fearlessly emotional as the works themselves from the original Beaux Arts personnel: the group’s perennial, evergreen pianist, Menahem Pressler, violinist Daniel Guilet, cellist Bernard Greenhouse.

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This was a powerhouse combination, less refined in tone and technique but far more incisive than their later incarnations, when the elegantly aloof Isidore Cohen became violinist and Greenhouse just seemed to lose interest.

One imagines the Beaux Arts Trio growing up with the legendary 1920s recordings of Beethoven’s “Archduke” and Schubert’s B-flat Trios by pianist Alfred Cortot, violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals: three superstars, each more or less going his own way in matters of phrasing and articulation, but finding common ground often enough to keep the music together.

But these gentlemen did more than make pretty sounds while maintaining a semblance of structural integrity. Each was in his physical prime at the time of these recordings and each clearly felt deeply about the music.

The string playing is luscious, Cortot’s piano a marvel of subtle fluency, and the interpretations, whether or not quite of a piece, are grandly communicative. The reissue, quite decent-sounding in view of the age of the originals, is in EMI/Angel’s mid-priced “Great Recordings of the Century” series (61024).

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Violinist Daniel Phillips, pianist Richard Goode and hornist William Purvis, though decidedly in our midst, are not living legends. They are simply three of the kingpins of chamber music in America and they combine their gifts for a superbly well-knit reading of Brahms’ Horn Trio, Opus 40 (Bridge 9012)--no less mechanically secure and a good deal less sentimental than the celebrated Perlman-Ashkenazy-Tuckwell edition.

The Brahms is imaginatively coupled with Gyorgy Ligeti’s 1982 “Hommage a Brahms"--specifically an homage to Opus 40, which it resembles by way of a common reference point in Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” sonata and frequent employment of natural horn harmonics.

But Ligeti’s Trio would not be confused with a work of the Romantic era, least of all in the final movement, music of the most profound pessimism, delivered in an intensely dissonant, harshly emotive language.

The Ligeti performers, in addition to the seemingly superhuman Purvis, are contemporary music masters Rolf Schulte, violin, and pianist Alan Feinberg.

Notable among a mass of new string quartet CDs--even the big labels have come to realize that it costs less to record the most expensive string quartet than the least expensive symphony orchestra--are outstanding releases by two youthful American ensembles.

In a stimulating, offbeat release, the Muir Quartet impersonates the “orchestra” in Mozart’s own chamber arrangements of two great early Viennese piano concertos, in A, K. 414, and in C, K. 415, as well as the earlier Concerto in B-flat, K. 238 (EMI/Angel 49156).

The pianist, hitherto not identified with Mozart, is Jean-Philippe Collard, who emerges a nimble, sensitive interpreter, in perfect accord with the Muir’s suavely punctilious but by no means precious ensemble execution.

Mozart again, this time from the even younger Colorado Quartet: the familiar “Dissonance” Quartet and the less-known and perhaps most unique of the six quartets dedicated to Haydn, the work in A, K. 464 (Fidelio 8813).

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The Colorado’s Mozart is sharp-edged and rhythmically crisp, their ensemble buoyantly light-toned. Their overall excellence in this coupling is highlighted by splendidly lithe projection of the infinite, elusive wonders of the slow movement of K. 464.


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