As was discussed this past September, Beaux Arts Trio 60, the 60-CD Decca box set covering all of the recordings made by the Beaux Arts Trio on the Philips label was divided into three sections, corresponding roughly to the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The operative adverb there is “roughly,” since the eighteenth-century section is devoted entirely to Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, saving the second section for those composers (most notably Ludwig van Beethoven) who made the transition into the nineteenth century. A similar problem arises in the final section with the appearance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 18 (first) piano trio in F major, which was composed in 1863 and definitely sounds like it would have been more compatible with the music in the second section.
On the other hand in the third section, Saint-Saëns’ trio is coupled on a CD with Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 45 (second) piano quartet in G minor, which was probably completed in 1886. Fauré was Saint-Saëns’ pupil; but he tends to be accepted for having a critical role in the transition from nineteenth-century Romanticism to at least some of the modernist approaches during the first half of the twentieth century. Maurice Ravel (whose A minor trio rightfully belongs in the final section) was his pupil; and, in his capacity as director of the Conservatoire de Paris, Fauré was responsibility for adding the music of Claude Debussy to the curriculum. More important is that the collection includes Fauré’s only piano trio (in D minor), which was completed not long before his death in 1924.
Nevertheless, while the piano trios of both Fauré and Ravel may be called representative of the early twentieth century, they do not make for much of a “sample space” in the context of the more adventurous modernists of that time. Thus, the major shortcoming is that the music in this final section involves compositions whose sense of adventure is, at best, very limited. Yes, the Beaux Arts Trio definitely deserves credit for having recorded Charles Ives’ only piano trio; but the results are somewhat mixed. On the one hand there is clearly a sincere effort to make sense out of Ives’ often perplexing approach to making music; but, for the most part, the result of that determined sensemaking is more clinical than musical.
(To be fair, this may reflect a personal bias about Ives. As I came to recognize how Ives would load, and sometimes overload, his scores with passages or fragments from familiar tunes, I realized that listening to his music required establishing a similar level of familiarity. As a result, I prepared my own mind for listening through learning how to sing both the hymns and the popular songs that provided grist for Ives’ mill. On the other hand I must confess that, for all of the performances and master classes I was fortunate enough to attend, I find it hard to imagine any member of the Beaux Arts Trio taking the time to sing even a tune as familiar and innocuous as “Rock of Ages.”)
In many respects the most “advanced” modernist in this section is Dmitri Shostakovich. Fortunately, he is represented by two recordings of his Opus 67 (second) piano trio, whose final movement reflects pointedly on the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, and one recording of his sardonic G minor piano quintet (Opus 57). For that latter performance the members of the trio are joined by violinist Eugene Drucker and violist Lawrence Dutton. In addition there is one “American” CD devoted to Ned Rorem, George Rochberg, and David Baker, whose approach to jazz certainly makes for a distinguished selection in the entire collection. Unfortunately, the Beaux Arts tended to be about as clinical in their approach to Baker as they were in the performance of Ives.
Nevertheless, there are “retrospective” composers who come out well in this section. There is probably much to be gained from listening to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s two “elegiac” trios when one has a recording of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 50 trio in A minor close at hand. Similarly, the performances of trios by both Alexander Zemlinsky and Erich Wolfgang Korngold definitely benefit from nineteenth-century sensibilities. On the whole it is better to take pleasure in what this collection offers than to pick too much on what it lacks.