I used to listen to the Beethoven piano trios on LPs, the original releases by the Beaux arts Trio (Presler, Cohen, Greenhouse). It was 'in-house' wisdom that those were the standard of interpretation. I was satisfied enough to have replaced the LPs with the complete-box re-release of CDs three or four years ago. I don't want to say that I'm suddenly dissatisfied with the Beaux Arts performances. I'm not. They remain the standard of excellence for performance on modern piano and strings.
Nevertheless, the recording of Haydn's Last Four Piano Trios by Robert Levin, Anner Bylsma, and Vera Beths impressed me as such a revelation that I hastened to buy this CD of Beethoven's two most popular piano trios, to see what difference the historical instruments might make. The keyboardist on this CD is Jos van Immerseel in place of Robert Levin. I played this and my older recording "back to back", movement by movement, Opus 70 #1 first and then Opus 97. Quite an afternoon of listening pleasure!
Most people living in the 19th Century, Beethoven's contemporaries and their heirs, would have made their acquaintance with Beethoven's music from the page, from playing it themselves rather than hearing it in a concert hall. That would have been especially true of chamber works like these piano trios; in many cases, we know exactly for whom Beethoven composed such music, who played it first, etc. We know some of the occasions when Beethoven himself played the fortepiano (he NEVER played the instrument we call a piano today), often with members of the household on the violin and cello. Such music was written for elegant pleasure, for shared entertainment in the salons of the wealthy. People of lesser means but rich enough to own instruments would soon have had the opportunity to buy the printed scores and imitate the elegance of their "betters". The image of Beethoven elaborated by later romantic historians, as a thunderous social radical and uncompromising musical tyrant, is partly humbug and partly based on the composer's unfortunate attempts to keep playing despite his deafness. What this all leads to, in my mind, is the necessity of remembering that these and other pieces of Beethoven's chamber music should NOT be overinterpreted. They should be beautiful to hear above all. They should embody both the taste, and to challenges to that taste, of the era in which they were composed. That would seem to be a central tenet of "historically informed" performance.
So... the first thing most listeners will hear in the comparison of the Beaux Arts vs. the Immerseel/Bylsma/Beth is that the former interpret the music more dramatically. It's hard for me not to declare that they overplay some passages, that they coarsen the music with romantic excess. The historical instrument trio tends to let the music "speak for itself" in affect, and to concentrate on purely musical values. I rush to confess, mind you, that I never 'heard' the Beaux Arts people as overinterpreting until I played this track-to-track match-up.
The next thing I heard was that the fortepiano had certain advantages for THIS music over the modern grand piano. Obviously the modern piano has resources the fortepiano lacked. The timbre of the lower and higher octaves on the modern piano is far more consistent; the forte piano sounds tinkly in its highest range and plunky in its lowest. However, for THIS music, such a contrast of timbre is quite satisfactory. It clarifies the voicing and emphasizes the contrast of registers. The fortepiano lacked the pedal controls of the modern piano, but listening to the two instruments in comparison, I find that Menahem Pressler of Beaux Arts depended far too much on damping the piano-string resonance by pedal. The quick decay of the 'lighter' fortepiano produces a cleaner, more transparent, more elegant sound. A more subtle difference will be heard only on high quality sound equipment; the modern piano, with its crossed string construction, inevitably 'contaminates' its notes with sympathetic vibrations, producing a low rumble of dissonance. Hence the tuning of the fortepiano is purer and acoustically simpler.
The dynamic range of the modern piano, from softest to loudest, is far greater than that of the fortepiano, especially toward the fortissimo side. But when Pressler coaxes his piano to its most energetic forte, the violin of Isadore Cohen becomes shrill and edgy. Odd that modern metal strings should sound more 'feline' than pre-modern 'cat gut' strings! On the whole, though Vera Beths is a less skilled player than Cohen, the sound of her violin is sweeter and better balanced with the fortepiano. Remember my premise, that the beauty of this music trumps the melodrama! (This inherent balance problem is what has prompted other reviewers to give the Beaux Arts recordings low ratings.)
As for the cellos, the comparison is easy. Anner Bylsma is profoundly more sensitive to the ensemble values of these trios, more generous, more fundamentally musical, than modern cellist Bernard Greenhouse, and once again the gut strings of the historical cello sound sweeter and blend better.
The Beaux Arts box is a great performance and a great value; I have no complaints about it. But if a complete set of Beethoven's fortepiano trios performed by Bylsma&Co were available, I'd recommend it as the better choice. Head to head, I prefer Bylsma&Co on every movement of these two trios except the Largo Assai of the "Ghost" trio, which the Beaux Arts bunch performs exquisitely.