Rostropovich: Chamber Music, Volume 2. BEETHOVEN: String Trio No. 1, op. 3. HANDEL: Violin Sonata in D, op. 1/13 -- III. Larghetto. SCHUMANN: 5 Stücke im Volkston, op. 102 -- I. Vanitas vanitatum: Mit Humor; IV. Nicht zu rasch. STRAUSS: Stimmungsbilder, op. 9 -- II. An einsamer Quelle. SINDING: Suite im alten Stil in a, op. 10 -- I. Presto. Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Leonid Kogan (violin), Rudolf Barshai (viola), Vladimir Yampolsky (piano). Pristine Audio PACM 092 TT: 60:09.

Gorgeous Beethoven, with lollipops. For many years, I wouldn't cross the street to attend a Beethoven concert. I simply didn't connect to much of his work, especially the early scores, which seemed predictable. I liked either very new music or Renaissance music and Bach. It was the wild and wooly Beethoven that attracted me: the Fifth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the "Kreutzer" sonata. Significantly, the earliest piano sonata I liked was the "Pathétique." A whole bunch of chamber music didn't appeal to me at all. Gradually, of course, my tastes widened. I credit the pianist Barbara Nissman in awakening my interest in the early period, with her insightful recordings of the early piano sonatas.
I had, of course, listened to Beethoven's string trios before, which struck me as pale imitations of Haydn and Mozart. This time around, however, three of the greatest Soviet musicians made clear not only the Haydn-Mozart basis but also Beethoven's individual spin on that foundation. The work, for Beethoven, doesn't scale the rugged peaks, but settles into the social relaxation of intelligent conversation.
The composer of string trios usually works to avoid the trap of a certain thinness and monotony of texture. Beethoven shines here. Beethoven has mastered the trick of suggesting more instruments than those actually playing. Often the ensemble sounds like a string quartet and the textures vary like the patterns in a kaleidoscope. The trio takes the form of a six-movement divertimento, à la Mozart -- with two minuets and two slow movements. Here and there, one hears Beethoven kicking against classical decorum. The first movement, a substantial sonata, has its share of Haydnesque caprice in the exposition, but the development shows the stirrings of Beethoven's obsession with exploring the possibilities of every motive and gesture. Indeed, it's the development that contributes to the length of the movement, larger than most similar movements in Haydn.
The third movement, a minuet, plays rhythmic games so weird, they never would have occurred to Haydn or Mozart -- or, for that matter, modern composers with more rhythms at their disposal. In effect, gremlins have stolen the downbeat and put it down wherever they want, all within a 3/4 measure. The remaining movements are quite Haydnesque, not surprising since Beethoven studied with Haydn: an operatic aria of lament in the slow movement, a classic minuet, and a capricious rondo. The rondo makes some nifty modulations, but so do Haydn's.
The performers themselves -- a trio of the top Soviet musicians of their day -- constitute a prime reason to get this disc. Rostropovich certainly needs no introduction. Leonid Kogan, a violinist of classical elegance and subtlety, probably ranked second only to Oistrakh in that generation of violinists. Rudolf Barshai -- also conductor, and champion of Shostakovich -- was the finest violist in the Soviet Union. He dedicated his career to chamber music and in 1955 conducted and directed the Moscow Chamber Orchestra for 22 years, until he went over to the West. I don't know what it is about Russian musicians in Beethoven that makes me prefer them to most

Germans. They seem to play with more heart and less reverence. When that combines with a strong sense of architecture, they can be unbeatable. Kogan impresses the most, with gorgeously sculpted lines, full of lights and shadows, and wonderful tone. Rostropovich is his usual vigorous self, while Barshai carries out his mostly utilitarian part with grace and total awareness of his place in the texture at any given time. However, he does also play a bit reticently, like many violists. Nevertheless, when he gets the rare chance to shine, he comes up to the mark. All told, you will rarely hear better chamber-music playing than this.
The remainder of the program consists of mainly encore pieces, a part of his live concerts Rostropovich relished. The Schumann excerpts from 5 Stücke im Volkston constitute something more. First, they are Schumann's only work for cello and piano. The Volkston indicates a popular style, and they differ from, say, his cello concerto (written around the same time) in their greater simplicity of material. However, their "easy" style doesn't take away from the fact that they count as some of Schumann's gems. In the words of Donald Tovey, they are "like all of Schumann's best music, recklessly pretty." You can toss them off, or, like Steven Isserlis, explore their nooks and crannies. Rostropovich commits Full Virtuoso on these pieces. "Vanitas vanitatum. Mit Humor" (Vanity of vanities. With humor) takes the form of a Hungarian dance or a Czech dumka. Its humor is mordant. Rostropovich emphasizes heartiness and grotesquerie. "Nicht zu rasch" (not too fast) splits into a merry first idea and a tender second. Rostropovich strikes a bluff attitude for the first idea and plays the second idea with a very Russian ardor. I'd also like to put in a word for pianist Vladimir Yampolsky. In many ways, he and Rostropovich are oil and water -- subtle vs. up-front. However, I found myself more attracted to Yampolsky than to Rostropovich. Furthermore, on the whole, I greatly prefer Isserlis.
I had the original Melodiya LPs for the Beethoven -- so dry it sounded as if the engineers had set up their mics in a box of Sunshine Krispy Crackers. Pristine has done miracles, not only warming the sound, but allowing you to hear musical nuances you never knew were there. This has become my go-to recording of the String Trio.

. (December 2020)