Long recognized as the leading piano trio in a competitive field, the Beaux Arts Trio is known for precise, straightforward performances and recordings of everything in the standard Central European trio literature. In concert, the group makes frequent forays into contemporary and non-mainstream music, but this is hardly evident in its conservative discography.
The trio made its debut July 13, 1955, having been assembled by French violinist Daniel Guilet; his inclination was to name the ensemble after himself, but he settled on a French name that would outlast the group's initial personnel. Guilet, born in France in 1899, had concertized as a soloist and chamber musician (notably with the Calvet Quartet) before moving to the U.S. in 1941. He joined the NBC Symphony in 1944 and became its concertmaster in 1951. Guilet had performed and recorded chamber music with cellist Bernard Greenhouse and pianist Menahem Pressler in studio recordings. The three first came together in a recording for MGM of Carnival of the Animals, were mutually impressed with the grouping, and soon formed the trio.
Greenhouse, born in New Jersey in 1916, was principal cellist in the CBS Symphony and a member of the Dorian Quartet. Pressler, born in 1923 in Magdeburg, Germany, had fled with his family to Palestine when Hitler came to power. He had been an international soloist from his early twenties. The group embarked on a 45-city American tour in late 1955, playing mostly low-profile community concerts. For the first several seasons, the middle of each concert would be a potpourri of well-known, flashy, or sentimental pieces for violin and piano or cello and piano.
The trio's interpretations were initially fairly free, but upon Guilet's retirement in 1969, new violinist Isidore Cohen urged the group to take musical markings more literally. Cohen, born in Brooklyn in 1922, had been a founding member of the Schneider String Quartet and had played second violin with the Juilliard Quartet. The Cohen-Greenhouse-Pressler combination became known for scrupulous performances that balanced expansiveness with zest.
The personnel began to change more frequently starting in 1987, when the retiring Greenhouse was replaced by cellist Peter Wiley. In 1992, Cohen left and was replaced by Ida Kavafian, an American born in Istanbul in 1952. Kavafian had helped form the hip chamber group Tashi in 1973. Like cellist Greenhouse, Kavafian was unafraid of contemporary music and the trio's performances of new works increased during her tenure, a period when the group took on a hard-driving elegance.
Pressler, reportedly a difficult personality, found himself with two new partners in 1998: violinist Young Uck Kim, born in South Korea in 1947, known principally as a soloist except for tours and recordings with pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma; and cellist Antonio Meneses, born in Brazil in 1957, a soloist who had won the 1982 Tchaikovsky International Competition. This incarnation of the trio was initially criticized for Pressler's uneven technique and the strings' occasional intonation trouble.
The Beaux Arts Trio enjoyed a long-term recording contract with Philips from the late 1950s. Its first project was a Beethoven cycle, and the ensemble went on to record all of the trios — and, with guest artists, piano quartets, and quintets — of the major Classical and Romantic composers. The group's most remarkable project was recording the complete trios of Haydn in the 1970s. The group began digitally re-recording much of its repertory in the 1980s, but new CDs dwindled in the 1990s and the post-Cohen era is poorly documented on disc.
British violinist Daniel Hope, a founding member of the London International Quintet, replaced Kim in early 2002. At 27, Hope was the youngest violinist to join the trio, and arrived as a champion of twentieth century and contemporary music. He vowed to persuade his new partners to "incorporate some element of contemporary music into every future program."