Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) Piano Trio No 1 in D minor Op 49 (1839)
Molto allegro ed agitato
Andante con moto tranquillo
Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace
By 1839, the 30-year-old Mendelssohn was established. He had been in Leipzig conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra for four years, and had been married for two. His work load was daunting: conducting and also frequently performing as pianist in 20 Gewandhaus orchestral concerts a year, together with chamber concerts, charity concerts, and ad hoc concerts for visiting virtuosi. The Gewandhaus concerts were an eclectic mix of the classics (mainly Beethoven and Mozart) and the contemporary (including Mendelssohn’s own works). One notable 1839 concert featured the world premiere of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C-major symphony which Robert Schumann had recently unearthed in Vienna. As well as orchestral works the concerts often included acts from operas or chamber music perhaps with Mendelssohn himself on piano.
In his teens Mendelssohn had explored various chamber music forms, most notably the remarkable String Octet of 1825 and his first two published String Quartets, but also three less-frequently played Piano Quartets which preceded the Octet. In 1837 he had returned to composing chamber music after a gap of almost 10 years, working on a set of three String Quartets while on his honeymoon. Tonight’s D minor Piano Trio followed soon after in 1839. Schumann loved it: ‘This is the master trio of our age, as were the B flat and D major trios of Beethoven and the E flat trio of Schubert in their times. It is an exceedingly fine composition which will gladden our grandchildren and great-grandchildren for many years to come.’ Yet it had not been without its problems. As Robert Philip points out:
‘After Mendelssohn had finished it, he showed it to the composer Ferdinand Hiller, who was staying with him in Leipzig. Hiller was very impressed, but had ‘one small misgiving. Certain pianoforte passages in it, constructed on broken chords, seemed to me – to speak candidly – somewhat old-fashioned.’ Hiller was a long-time friend of Liszt and Chopin, and was ‘thoroughly accustomed to the richness of passages which marked the new pianoforte school’. The result of Hiller’s suggestions was that Mendelssohn rewrote the entire piano part, making it less conventional in style – and, no doubt, much more difficult to play.’
An example of this ‘new school’ writing may perhaps be in the very opening (illustrated), where Mendelssohn rapidly alternates the left and right hands of the piano’s accompaniment to augment the sense of agitation, pushing forward the gloriously expansive cello melody.
The slow movement has a tender beauty, a ‘Song without words’, with the strings echoing the piano. The tenderness becomes more impassioned after the piano recalls a descending idea that the violin had used as a counter-melody in the first movement (illustrated).
The ‘light and lively’ Scherzo is trademark Mendelssohn recalling the Scherzo of the precocious Octet. Masterfully written, it is even now a challenge to play at the blistering marked tempo of one bar a second. The last movement can’t compete for sheer tempo, but uses more traditional means: contrapuntal ingenuity driven by a fiendishly complex piano part, and then the cello bursting forth with the most gloriously optimistic theme of the whole wonderful work (illustrated).
Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) Piano Trio No.2 in B minor Op.76 (1933)
Lento; Allegro molto moderato; Allegretto
Molto vivace; Lento; Molto vivace
Lento; Andante mosso; Allegretto; Meno mosso; Moderato; Allegretto; Allegro molto moderato; Allegro vivo
Born in Seville, Turina initially followed his family’s wishes by studying medicine, but could not stay away from music. Ambition drove him to Madrid in 1902 to study at the Real Conservatorio, where he became friends with Manuel de Falla. Discouraged by the failure of his efforts in the popular and potentially lucrative form of zarzuela comic operas (named after a royal hunting lodge that was thick with zarzas – brambles), he moved to Paris three years later. There he studied at the Schola Cantorum, an institution set up by Vincent d’Indy and others to counter the Paris Conservatoire’s emphasis on opera. It provided a solid grounding in ancient and classical technique with a stolid diet of traditional church music. But Paris also introduced Turina (and de Falla who had followed in 1907) to Debussy, Ravel, Franck and Albeniz. Albeniz and de Falla advised Turina to enliven his Schola-influenced work with material from Spanish popular music. The advice was good and when the outbreak of WW1 forced both Turina and de Falla back to Spain, they were successful. Turina stayed in Madrid becoming professor of composition at the Madrid Conservatoire in 1930.
Turina’s second Piano Trio laces his classical training with distinctive Spanish forms and material. We start with three wistful Lento bars complete with a characteristically poignant triplet; they lead into the flowing opening theme (illustrated). The tempo drops to Allegretto and the second theme recalls the opening Lento. The tempo changes again to yet another melody combining ideas from the two preceding ones. The movement continues to move pleasingly between these different tempi and their related melodies.
The second movement is resembles a Scherzo and Trio. It starts fast in 5/8 (like a Castilian Rueda dance), then a short slow section in 3/4 before recapitulating the fast section. The last movement starts dramatically Lento then Andante with big chords reminiscent of Brahms before the piano plunges off into a hearty waltz-like Allegretto (illustrated). Numerous varied episodes at different tempi follow incorporating material from the preceding movements.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Piano Trio in B flat Op. 97 ‘Archduke’ (1811)
Scherzo & Trio: Allegro
Andante cantabile ma però con moto
Allegro moderato – Presto
Beethoven’s Op 97 ‘Archduke‘ Trio of 1811 is the middle one of a remarkable sequence of three chamber works. It comes between the Op 95 ‘Serioso‘ String Quartet of 1810 and the glorious Op 96 Violin Sonata of 1812. The Trio’s dedicatee Archduke Rudolph was the Emperor Leopold II’s youngest son, a piano and composition pupil of Beethoven. Their relationship was close and long-lasting: Rudolph not only admired Beethoven and tolerated his foibles but, together with the Princes Kinsky and Lobkowitz, contracted to provide Beethoven with an annuity so that ‘the necessities of life shall not cause him embarrassment or clog his powerful genius‘. During Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna in 1809 Rudolph had sought sanctuary in Hungary, prompting Beethoven’s regretful ‘Lebewohl‘ Piano Sonata. Following Napoleon’s departure, Rudolph returned early in 1810, but by then Beethoven had other problems: love and money. First, Therèse Malfatti turned him down. He wrote self-pityingly to his friend Ignaz von Gleichenstein, who had introduced them, ‘For your poor B, no happiness can come from outside. You must create everything for yourself in your own heart; and only in the world of ideals can you find friends’. Incidentally, as a farewell present he gave Therèse a little Bagatelle, later published with the probable misattribution of Für Elise. Second, because of inflation following the Napoleonic Wars, Beethoven’s annuity declined in purchasing power (though the kindly Rudolph later agreed to reinstate the real value of his share).
Whereas the Op 95 ‘Serioso‘ String Quartet reflects these traumas and tensions, the ‘Archduke‘ Trio miraculously rises above them. The work opens with a spacious melody first on the piano, then on the violin (illustrated). The opening bar figures prominently in the development, while the third bar material (under x) yields a novel pizzicato dialogue between the two strings, an example of the new textures that Beethoven creates in this work. The opening of the Scherzo (illustrated) begins another string dialogue, using material related to that under x and y in the first example. Its lightness contrasts with the creepy gloom of the opening of the Trio.
The Andante is one of Beethoven’s most sublime: a set of variations on a miraculously extended theme. The opening, though richly scored, is marked piano semplice and piano dolce dissuading the players from overindulgence. Three variations increase in movement and complexity until the fourth reverts to quiet contemplation of the original theme by the individual instruments. This reverie is rudely broken and the piano suggests something quite different which the strings, maybe against their better judgment, come round to agreeing to. What follows is something of a piano concerto, perhaps acknowledging the Archduke’s skill. The violin is banished to its lower register, and the cello is only occasionally allowed to shine high. But the piano has a ball: Presto, Più Presto. Fine.