It is a treat to encounter a world premiere performance of a piece by Beethoven, especially when the performers are as skilled and committed as the ones on this CD. To be sure, the music is not completely unknown: the one-movement Trio in E-flat, Hess 47, is the composer's arrangement of the first movement of his published String Trio, Op. 3 (written 1794). For reasons unknown, Beethoven didn't arrange more than the one movement he completed sometime after 1800, and his MS. was not published until 1920. Thus the music has existed in print for 90 years but was neglected by potential performers, doubtless because the individual parts were never transcribed.
It was actually another Beethoven rarity that occasioned the present CD. The young French-American pianist George Lepauw discovered that a Piano Trio, also in E-flat, had never been performed in North America, even though it had been published in 1806 as Beethoven's Op. 63. When Lepauw proposed a U.S. premiere to the American Beethoven Society, a scholar and member, James F. Green, suggested filling out the program with two more premieres, the Hess 47 and also a Trio in D. Forming the Beethoven Project Trio with two Chicago-based musicians, violinist Sang Mee Lee and cellist Wendy Warner, Lepauw and his colleagues premiered the three works last year at Murphy Auditorium in Chicago (the renowned "Archduke" Trio filling out the program), repeated the concert in New York, and recorded the "new" pieces there as well.
The Hess 47 Trio, an Allegro con brio about 12 minutes in length, is a delightful and memorable piece: vigorous in its opening statement and with a lovely soaring tune as the second subject. The Beethoven Project Trio — their slightly awkward name indicating their intention to record all of Beethoven's piano trio music — perform the piece indeed with brio, though I must say I prefer the original String Trio version. Cedille's program note claims that "the inclusion of the piano gives the same music much more dramatic energy," but I love the way the viola part interweaves seamlessly with the violin and cello, making the piano's contrasting sonority seem not quite "right." Perhaps I've been swayed by the recording by the excellent Adaskin String Trio (on a bargain 2-CD Musica Omnia set [mo0106] that includes the Serenade, Op. 8, and the three superb but not well-known String Trios, Op. 9.)
The Piano Trio in D, dated 1799, was apparently all set for publication, with numbered bars in a clean copy, but it never got to the publisher, the MS. ending up in the British Museum. A century ago it was thought to have been written by Mozart, but the handwriting has been determined to be that of Kaspar Karl van Beethoven, who worked as a copyist for his brother. It's quite a pleasant piece in two movements, a sonata-form Allegro and a Rondo in a country-dance style. Unfortunately, the MS. is missing two pages of the first movement, comprising 33 bars, but the musicologist Robert McConnell has reasoned that the missing bars must be the first part of the recapitulation of the opening section; it is his edition that is performed here. The BPT play with gusto and affection, if perhaps with a slight amount of caution. I could imagine them in the rollicking Rondo cutting loose just a bit more.
Finally, the Op. 63 Trio in E-flat is a full four-movement work lasting close to 35 minutes. It was published in 1806 as a "GRAND SONATA for the Forte-Piano, with Violin and Cello obbligato, taken from the Grand Quintet, Op. 4." Two points are of the essence here: the piano is the star instrument; and the work is Beethoven's arrangement of his own String Quintet of 1795. I must add as well that the Quintet itself was freely adapted from a yet earlier wind octet of 1792; and that for a long period the Trio was believed to be not Beethoven's own arrangement — hence its neglect by performers — but now most musicologists have welcomed it back into the fold. (For the reason behind this change of mind, see Cedille's excellent program notes, on which I've been relying for the other historical information.)
Here I find the Piano Trio arrangement much more satisfying than the String Quintet version, again possibly because of my CD of comparison — in this case, a rather dry, if not downright arid, 1977 performance by the Suk Quartet, with KarelSpelina as the second violist, on the Supraphon label. The BPT, with pianist Depeuw as the "first among equals" in the Trio arrangement, manage to be both warm and sparkling, with an especially lovely and leisurely paced second-movement Andante.
The producer of this beautifully recorded CD is, readers might like to know, Max Wilcox, an industry veteran who supervised recordings of Artur Rubenstein, Boston/Munch, and Philadelphia/Ormandy decades ago, and more recently the Emerson Quartet and Richard Goode.