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Magic from the Van Baerle Trio and Bert van der Wolf

03-30-2021 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 114

It's rare that one gets to experience a true tour de force, but that is what I've enjoyed the past several months with the Van Baerle Trio's traversal of Beethoven's complete works for piano trio—a marvelous journey through some of the greatest music ever written. I've long held the Beaux Arts Trio in highest regard as it comes to performance of the Beethoven Trios. I still do. But the Van Baerle Trio have now taken highest place in my preferences for performance of these works. Plus, one gets the benefit of much more transparent sound quality, of which I'll have more to say.

The Complete Beethoven Piano Trios, Vol 1-5, Van Baerle Trio. Challenge Classics | Northstar Recording 2017-2020 (DSD256, DXD) HERE

I don't intend to write about the individual works. I don't have the competence to contrast and compare with the plethora of other performances. For that, you will have to look elsewhere.

What I can say is that, overall, these are freshly vigorous performances. I love them for their clarity, intelligence, precise ensemble, and joie de vivre. They are not played as historically informed performances (HIP), but the performances certainly have been informed by the HIP movement in their lightness, their direct statement, their lack of over-indulgence. These are largely quick, lithe performances but with a great delicacy of touch. They don't dawdle, but they linger where the music benefits from attention to that space and quiet between the notes that so greatly adds meaning in the right hands. And these are the right hands, indeed.

The middle period and later works are played with power and strength. The Op. 38, for example, is played with a delightful mixture of both power in first and fourth movements and with a twinkle of fresh fun in the third movement's Tempo di Menuetto. This is typical of the Van Baerle's strength as a performing trio. They easily, and with great grace and ensemble, move from serious intentionality to light-hearted fun—all as the music seems to call forth.

This is a five volume set, sold individually. So, where to start one may ask? If you would simply like to sample what this group sounds like, then by all means sample any of the individual movements available on the website. These are all made available as full movements, not frustrating 30-second samples. If you're considering which volume to purchase and download as an initial exploration, I suggest you start with Volume 2 if you are perhaps not so familiar with the music. To my ear, the Op. 1 No. 2 on this album is one of the more accessible works while still having good meat on the bone. If you find this attractive, then by all means get Volume 3 for the Op. 70.

The last volume in the set surprised me by the inclusion of the Triple Concerto performed with the Residentie Orkest The Hague, Jan Willem de Vriend conducting. It's a work of which I've never been over-fond, largely because it's so often performed by competing egos. With the Van Baerle Trio the work was transformed for me—I quite enjoyed both the music (for once) and the performance. It was enough to place this in the "utterly delightful" category for me.

These wonderful performances by the Van Baerle Trio are complemented by the outstanding sound quality given them by recording engineer Bert van der Wolf, founder, chief recording engineer and producer for Northstar Recording.

Photo by Brendon Heinst

A bit of explanation is appropriate: Bert van der Wolf is an independent recording engineer based in the Netherlands, and his recording company is Northstar Recording with recordings branded "HQ | NORTHSTAR." He makes many recordings for the Challenge Classics label (not to be confused with Channel Classics); you will see these co-branded as Challenge Classics / HQ | Northstar. This Complete Beethoven Piano Trios with the Van Baerle Trio is among those recordings. Only the lower resolution formats of these recordings are available under the Challenge Classics label. By contract, Bert has reserved the 24-352 DXD iterations of these recordings for sale only through his sales company, The Spirit of Turtle. It is these DXD releases that I've been listening to, find most enticing, and whole-heartedly recommend to you.

Bert van der Wolf's philosophy of recording is to seek the highest quality of sound he can achieve. He records directly to DXD, uses a minimal number of microphones, seeks to capture the natural acoustic of the recording space. He writes that his recording philosophy "is about music and how we can communicate this optimally from performer to listener. A quest for transparency whereby an unconditional dedication and effort is shared and invested by all involved to reach our goals. A gateway between performer and listener that in the best case adds nothing, and takes nothing away from a real life performance." He strives "to let music sound in an acoustic environment" and to provide a recorded sound that "is believable and similar to a real sounding concert where human beings are involved…in a logical set-up which we recognize to be similar to experiencing a live performance."

This is a philosophy very dear to my interests as a listener to acoustic instruments and voice. Bert consistently accomplishes his goals in each of the various recordings I've had the pleasure to hear. I look forward to continuing my exploration of his recordings.

I wrote about Bert's recording of the album From Heaven on Earth - Lute Music from Kremsmunster Abbey, also on Northstar, back in November of 2020. HERE. I promised then that I would be returning to write more about Bert's wonderful recordings and artists, sorry it's taken so long. But, I'll make that promise once again: we will be back to talk about more of his catalog.

If you share my love of such naturally recorded performances in super high resolution, I encourage you to join me in this exploration of Bert's recordings available to us through his The Spirit of Turtle website. The results will be well worth your efforts.

Bert van der Wolf's mastering studio

Photos courtesy of Northstar Recording and Challenge Classics