IT IS WIDELY assumed that chamber music does not have the mass popularity enjoyed by the big orchestral works, or even the potential for it, but few works of music in any form are at once so respected and so beloved as the so-called Archduke Trio. This last and grandest of Beethoven's sonata-type compositions for piano, violin and cello is one of the ten major works he dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, who was his friend as well as his pupil and patron - and this factor may have something to do with the warmth of heart and serenity that underlie the contrasting moods of the four movements. (Among the other works dedicated to Rudolph may be noted the final version of Fidelio, the Piano Concerto in E-flat and the Missa solemnis. )
There may have been fewer recordings of the Archduke over the years than one might have expected, but they have been an unusually distinguished lot; from the first, the work's discography has been studded with "all-star" performances. One of the earliest, of course, was the one made nearly 50 years ago by Alfred Cortot, Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals; in 1941 Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann included this in the short list of works they were able to record together before the incomparable cellist's death the following year. Both of these versions are still in circulation, the former quite economically on a Seraphim disc which also includes Beethoven's Variations on "Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu" (60242), the latter in a two-disc RCA set with trios of Schubert and Brahms (LM-7025).
Casals subsequently rerecorded the Archduke twice, once with Eugene Istomin and Alexander Schneider for Columbia (deleted now), later in stereo with Mieczyslaw Horszowski and Sandor Vegh (Turnabout TV-S 34411). Further "all-star" recordings have been made by the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio (Columbia MS-6819 or in D3S-799), by Wilhelm Kempff, Henryk Szeryng and Pierre Fournier (Deutsche Grammophon 2530.147), by Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and Jacqueline du Pre (Angel, deleted now), and by Emil Gilels with Leonid Kogan and Mstislav Rostropovich (Monitor MCS-2010 or Westminster WGS-8225). The late David Oistrakh left us a hansome account of the work with his long-time associates cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitzky and Pianist Lev Oborin (Angel S-35704), and one of Janos Starker's earliest American recordings was an Archduke with his Hungarian-born colleagues Victor Aitay (now concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and Agi Jambor.
Just after World War II, the great English pianist Solomon recorded a magnificent Archduke with violinist Henry Holst and cellist Anthony Pini; this version reached our shores only in the form of imported 78s, never as a domestic release, and it has never as a domestic release, and it has never been transferred to LP. Early in the LP era there were two Archdukes of more than passing attractiveness, both by perfomers at that time all but unknown here - Paul Badura-Skoda, Jean Fournier and Antonio Janigro on Westminster, the Vienna-bases Jilka Trio on Remington.
And of course there have been several recordings by ensembles formed specifically to perform this kind of music - the Trio di Trieste, Trio di Bolzano, Trio Santoliquido, the Beaux Arts Trio, et al. When I was traveling in Europe a few years ago, it seemed that the Beaux Arts Trio was always in the city I was visiting, always playing the Archduke, and always doing it superbly. The recording of the complete Beethoven piano trios this group made for Philips (set 6747.142), was taped when Daniel Guilet was its violinist; the Archduke performance on the disc is not as strong as those I have heard since Isidore Cohen took Guilet's place beside pianist Menahem Pressler and cellist Bernard Greenhouse, and it should be noted that all the works in the Philips set are performed without repeats - a consideration which is more important to some listeners than to others, to be sure.
All of the performances mentioned above have their attractions. There is, in fact, not one among them that is less than satisfying, and sentiment may compensate for the sonic shorcomings of the 1928 Cortot-Thibaud-Casals version. The single recording which seems to offer the highest quotient of pleasure, though, is one that is neither hard to find, sonically deficient nor expensive. The Suk Trio's deepfelt and elegantly played version, available earlier on Columbia's short-lived Crossroads label, was reissued two years ago in Vanguard's Supraphon series (SU-5). As a realization of the work's strength and compassion, profundity and humor, and as a thoroughly integrated, ideally balanced performance, this is just about all one could ask. Since the record of Supraphon's relationships with various American record companies in the last quarter-century has not been an encouraging one, those who have not acted to acquire this gem are advised to do so while it is available. It may also be had, more expensively, as a Supraphon import, and by the time these words appear in print the Suk Trio's remake in quadraphonic sound may be similarly available. But there is really no need to spend more than $3.98 for the finest Archduke.