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September 14, 2015

Best Piano Trios (Music Review)

Over the centuries of its history, the Piano Trio (in the combination of piano, violin and cello) has gained a repertoire exceptional in size and richness, one which includes some of the most widely admired of all chamber works. But instead of focusing on the principal works such as the trios by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Ravel and others, I would like to introduce here a number of so-called "unjustly forgotten trios" (often by "unknown composers") which are however rich in beautiful melodies and artistic invention. They are among my personal favorites and deserve more ears!

[Heinrich Marschner]

1. Heinrich Marschner, Piano Trio No 2 in G minor Op. 11 (1840).
The German composer Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861) was in the first place a composer of Romantic operas (with such ominous titles as The Vampire) in the period between the death of Weber and the advent of Wagner. Besides opera, Marschner's only other compositions consisted of a few chamber music works, of which the piano trios were lavishly praised by Schumann. These fine works are clearly the fruit of considerable time and effort. The second trio starts with a big and haunting Allegro, as if inhabited by the romantic atmosphere of one of Marschner's colorful operas. The second movement is a wonderful romance, great in its simplicity. After the whirlwind scherzo (a fast ride on horseback) follows the Allegro vivace which concludes the trio in magnificent style. A fresh and original trio that is the epitome of Romanticism.
Recording listened to: Beethoven Trio Ravensburg on CPO (with Piano Trio No. 5).

[Charles-Valentin Alkan]

2. Charles-Valentin Alkan, Trio for piano, violin and bass in G minor Op. 30 (1841).
Paris-born Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was a child prodigy on both the violin and the piano. As a piano virtuoso he was regarded as the equal of Liszt, while also being one of the best piano composers - although his music is ferociously difficult to play. However, he gave up his concert career in his mid thirties and lived as a recluse, which made his reputation fade until rediscovery in the late 20th c. The piano trio was a very apt form for Alkan, for as a violinist he also knew how to write for string instruments, but Alkan was also an unorthodox composer as can be heard in the sometimes unusual interplay between the instruments. In the first movement, there is a sharp contrast between the violent first theme and the lovely, lyrical second theme. The scherzo is marked by a rapid rhythmic exchange between the three instruments, while the Lentement has an unusual, somber melody and a long piano cadenza. The finale is a tremendous perpetuum mobile on a powerful rhythmic theme, crowned by a climax of extraordinary intensity.
Recording listened to: Trio Alkan on Naxos (with violin and cello sonatas).

[Robert Volkmann]

3. Robert Volkmann, Piano Trio in B flat minor Op. 5 (1850).
Robert Volkmann was a German composer who lived most of his time in Budapest, as piano teacher and reporter for the Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung. Volkmann produced two piano trios. Op. 8 in F is a somewhat lightweight affair (although with a beautiful melody in the first movement), but Op. 5 (published in 1852) is a stormy and passionate piece. More than that, it was the breakthrough work of the composer who had until then worked in virtual obscurity - when it caught the ears of Franz Liszt (to whom it was dedicated) and Hans von Bülow, it was hailed as a masterpiece and they proceeded to play it in various European cities. The trio does not keep to sonata form but seems more like a free fantasy. The first movement works up to a tremendous dramatic climax. The second movement is an intermezzo with a mellow character. The last movement has again a forceful theme. Despite the unconventional structure, the harmonic style is traditional, and Volkmann didn't really belong in the camp of Liszt and Wagner. Later in life, Volkmann befriended Brahms, and his music is now often seen as a link between Schumann and Brahms.
Recommended Recording: Beethoven Trio Ravensburg on CPO (both Volkmann trios).

[Woldemar Bargiel]

4. Woldemar Bargiel, Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major Op. 6 (1851).
Woldemar Bargiel (1828-97) was Clara Schumann’s half brother, and through her introduction, received the support of both Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory with Ignaz Moscheles (piano) and Niels Gade (composition). Bargiel held positions at the conservatories in Cologne and Rotterdam before accepting a position at the prestigious Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin where he taught for the rest of his life. Bargiel composed relatively little, but everything he wrote shows a solid craftsmanship and rich inventiveness. That is also clear from his first Piano Trio, which was written in 1851 and published in 1855 with the help of Clara and Robert. After a slow introduction (which is unrelated to rest of the trio) follows a beautiful romantic aspiring theme in a triumphal march rhythm. The second movement Andante has two extremely lovely themes and its serenity is only briefly disturbed. The Scherzo is very Schumanesque and proceeds in continuous dactylic, dotted rhythms, interrupted only by a charming central section with lyrical string contributions against piano arpeggio figuration. The finale is a massive fugue, which is at the same time a breathtaking moto perpetuo. This trio is not only a demonstration of great craftsmanship, it also shines in its melodic inventions. There is an excellent balance between the three instruments.
Recording listened to: Trio Parnassus on MD&G Records (with violin sonata, etc.; other two trios by Bargiel on companion disk).

[Théodore Gouvy]

5. Théodore Gouvy, Piano Trio No. 3 in B flat Major Op. 19 (mid 1850s).
Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898) was born on the French-Prussian border and grew up with a dual French and German cultural heritage. This also meant he fell between the cracks of two nations. Moreover, after his study in Paris, he decided to become a French symphonist at a time that the opera ruled supreme. Throughout most of the 19th century, the French, and especially the Parisians, were opera-mad and not particularly interested in purely instrumental music. The last third of his life Gouvy lived almost entirely in Germany where he was more appreciated. His compositions, and especially his chamber music, were held in high regard in Germany, Austria, England, Scandinavia and Russia. Gouvy was a master of form and possessed a deft sense of instrumental timbre. He was a gifted melodist whose music is a joy to hear. Gouvy’s Piano Trio No. 3 was written with the freshness and energy of a young man. The opening movement has quite an uplifting bounce in the form of an attractive heroic theme played by the strings against a pulsing accompaniment in the piano. It is a movement full of excitement. The Allegretto begins like a children's dance but is disturbed by a powerful march in the trio. The work's center of gravity is the long Adagio, which evokes a brilliant, breezeless summer day. This inventive trio ends with a sparkling Vivace, full of vigor.
Recording listened to: Münchner Klaviertrio on Orfeo (with second piano trio).

6. Josef Rheinberger, Piano Trio No. 2 in A Major Op.112 (1878).
Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901) was born in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. When his musical talent was discovered, he was sent to the Royal Conservatory in Munich where he studied with Franz Lachner. Rheinberger was active in Munich as organist and choral master, and also taught for more than 40 years composition at the Royal Conservatory - among his students were Humperdinck, Wolf-Ferrari, George Chadwick and Wilhelm Furtwangler. He is in the first place known for his organ compositions, but his chamber music is also important. The Second Piano Trio was composed in the autumn of 1878 and is in four well-balanced movements. It is classical in form, but highly romantic in content. The genial opening melody of the first movement is unforgettable. The second movement, Andantino espressivo, is built around a gorgeous and languid melody, full of longing. This is followed by a Minuetto, with a duet between the strings underpinned by a flowing piano part. The finale is joyous and full of élan and re-introduces melodies from the first movement before ending with a bracing coda.
Recording listened to: Göbel Trio Berlin on Thorofon (with Nonet).

[Ernest Chausson]

7. Ernest Chausson, Piano Trio in G minor Op. 3 (1881).
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) first studied law before entering the Paris Conservatory in 1879 where he studied with Jules Massenet and César Franck. The Piano Trio in G minor was written in 1881 at just about the time Chausson entered Franck’s class, and consists of four large movements. We can surely hear Franck's influence, especially in the first movement with its thick textures, dark harmonic progressions and abrupt dynamic changes. The opening movement starts with a twenty-bar slow introduction, in which the motto themes are somewhat theatrically presented, in succession on the cello and the violin. The piano provides a restless underpinning to the motivic phrases of the strings in a dark, intense minor mode. The second movement is a short and light intermezzo and the only movement that contains no thematic allusions to other parts of the trio. The third movement has a beautiful D minor piano tune, in fact the second motif from the first movement played at half speed. The final movement, too, was inspired by Franck’s use of cyclic themes and the work comes full circle on a dramatic note, with a grand peroration, during which the motto themes return with greatly expanded scoring. This trio shows an exceptional sense of architecture and lyricism.
Recording listened to: Pascal Devoyon (piano), Philippe Graffin (violin), Gary Hoffman (cello) on Hyperion (with Poème, Andante et Allegro etc.).

8. Arthur Foote, Piano Trio No 1 in C minor Op. 5 (1882-84).
Arthur Foote (1853-1937) was the first American composer of classical music to be wholly trained in the United States. Born in Salem, Arthur Foote studied composition under John Knowles Paine at Harvard University. In 1875 Foote earned the first master’s degree in music ever granted by an American university. Until this time Foote had considered music a hobby, but now he decided to devote his life to it. He became a private teacher of the piano and organ, and was for 32 years the organist of the First Church, Unitarian, in Boston. Many of his orchestral compositions were first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He influenced subsequent generations of musicians through his didactic writings and in the first two decades of the twentieth century was considered a central figure among American composers.

[Arthur Foote]

Foote was especially known for chamber music, art songs, and music for choirs. His training was European classical, in the style of Mendelssohn and Schumann, while he himself was in the first place inspired by the newer music of Brahms and Dvorak. His music is lyrical and serene. There are broad, stately melodies, as well as moments of romantic rhapsody, but in the end everything is tightly bound together by a classical structure. The first Piano Trio is a good case in point. It starts with an expansive movement characterized by a romantically yearning melody in C minor. The second theme somewhat resembles a New England church hymn. After an elfin-like, dancing Scherzo, we get a lyrical movement with a languid and sad melody and a dramatic atmosphere of unrest. The finale again brings a church hymn and closes satisfyingly after a long and exciting coda.
Recording listened to: Arden Trio on Marco Polo (with second piano trio).

[Josef Foerster]

9. Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Piano Trio No. 2 in B flat Major Op. 38 (1894).
Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859-1951) was born in Prague and studied organ and composition, taking over from Dvorak as chief organist in one of Prague's leading churches. His wife Berta Foersterová-Lautererová was a leading soprano and he followed her when she was engaged at various European opera houses, first to Hamburg and later to Vienna. In both cities Foerster worked mainly as a music critic. After their return to Prague, Foerster taught for many years at the Conservatory. Except in his early works, Foerster was not a nationalistic composer. He didn't employ a Czech idiom like Dvorak and Smetana, but wrote intensely personal music in an international idiom. The second of his three piano trios was written in 1894 shortly after the death of his younger sister. This loss is evident in the elegiac adagio that concludes the work. But the first two movements are quite brightly colored (the second movement is a brilliant scherzo), and the grief in the last movement is not of the tormented kind, but rather gives rise to meditative, melancholy music. The mood is tinged with a sophisticated sense of resignation and the end is muted, like a silent sigh.
Recording listened to: Foerster Trio on Supraphon (all 3 Foerster trios).

[Julius Röntgen (right) with Edvard Grieg, Percy Grainger and Nina Grieg in Grieg's villa Troldhaugen, 1907]

10. Julius Röntgen, Piano Trio No. 6 in C minor Op. 50 (1904).
Julius Röntgen (1855-1932) was born into a musical family in Leipzig and studied with Carl Reinecke, the director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, as well as Franz Lachner in Munich. His professional career took Röntgen to Amsterdam, where he helped to found the Amsterdam Conservatory and the subsequently world famous  Concertgebouw Orchestra. He composed throughout his life and especially after his retirement. Though he wrote in most genres, chamber music was his most important area. Röntgen had a special tie with the piano trio, as he played together as a trio with Carl Flesch and Pablo Casals, as well as later with two of his sons. His 1904 trio was dedicated to the Danish composer Carl Nielsen and indeed the trio's Andante has the character of a Scandinavian folk melody (although it is an original melody by Röntgen). This is the movement with the greatest charm. With its long and flowing lyrical melodies the first movement has Brahmsian qualities as does the last. Both are filled with rich and varied harmonies and a balanced interplay between the three instruments.
Recording listened to: Storioni Trio on Ars Produktion (with piano trios 9 and 10).

11. William Hurlstone,  Piano Trio in G Major (1905)
William Yeates Hurlstone (1876-1906) was born in London and studied at the Royal College of Music with Charles Villiers Stanford. He was very talented and in 1905, at the age of 28, he was appointed Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint at the Royal College. Tragically, he suffered from bronchial pneunomia and less than a year later, he was dead. Although he also wrote a Piano Concerto and several other orchestral works, Hurlstone is in the first place remembered for his excellent chamber music works, of which the Piano Trio is one. It is happy and genially flowing music. The Allegro moderato opens with a lyrical theme on the cello, which is deceptively simple. Soon several harmonic detours and surprises follow, including the third-related key in which the second theme, molto appasionato, appears. In the Andante a lyrical cantabile theme is contrasted with more dramatic material. The third movement is a playful Scherzo with a hint of folk song - a very upbeat, English theme. The exciting finale is a lively Rondo characterized by undulating accompaniment and displaying Hurlstone's contrapuntal dexterity. A reflective second subject provides a beautiful contrast. The work is brought to a close by an exciting accelerando.
Recording listened to: The Dussek Piano Trio on Dutton (with String Quartet etc.).

[Alexander Gretchaninov]

12. Alexander Gretchaninov, Piano Trio No 1 in C minor Op. 38 (1906).
Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956) was born in Moscow and studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev, and later in St. Petersburg with Rimsky-Korsakov. His works achieved high acclaim in Russia - in 1910 the Tsar awarded him an annual pension, But after the Revolution Gretchaninov didn't feel comfortable anymore in Russia and emigrated, first to France in 1925, then in 1939 to his final destination, the U.S. The first piano trio was dedicated to Taneyev. The opening movement is propelled forward by passionate feelings and an urgent first theme. It makes a very "Tchaikovskian" impression. The Lento assai has a beautiful violin theme and the Allegro vivace which concludes the three part work is energetic and highly rhythmical and brings the trio to a vivid conclusion somewhat in the style of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto.
Recording listened to: The Moscow Rachmaninov Trio on Hyperion (with Piano Trio No 2 and Cello Sonata).

[Erich Wolfgang Korngold]

13. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Piano Trio in D major, Op. 1 (1910). 
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was an Austro-Hungarian composer who astonished the musical world as a composing wunderkind. Mahler proclaimed him a genius at age nine (!), after which he started lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky. The child prodigy later developed into a major Viennese opera composer (Die Tote Stadt). In 1934 he moved to Hollywood where he became a pioneer in composing film scores - along with  Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, he is one of the founders of film music. His serious music was considered out of vogue at the time he died, but is now experiencing a reawakening of interest. Korngold wrote orchestral music (including a symphony and violin concerto), piano music and chamber works (such as string quartets), songs, operas and film scores. His Piano Trio was composed when he was only thirteen years of age. Premièred by leading instrumental luminaries in Vienna, it announced a precocious and major talent in its handling of bold and complex harmonies and musical form, taking the style of Richard Strauss to new levels of opulent beauty. In four parts, this is a substantial late-romantic work. The elegant swirls that open this piece evoke Strauss’s elegant waltzes and strike the listener as elegant but also mysterious ruminations. The layered textures and fervent themes impart a strong sense of space and expansiveness to the whole work.
Recording listened to: Beaux Arts Trio on Philips (with Zemlinsky Trio).

14. Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello Op. 24 (1945).
Mieczysław Weinberg (also spelled as Vainberg; 1919-1996) was a Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin. He lost most of his family in the Holocaust and fled in 1939 to the Soviet Union. He was educated at the Warshaw Conservatory and moved to Moscow after meeting Shostakovich, with whom he remained close. There is a decided Jewish ethnic influence in Weinberg's music, such as of Klezmer ensembles. The Piano Trio is a substantial work written when Weinberg was only 26 and had just moved to Moscow. The trio offers powerful music with a genuine vitality. The first movement is a Prelude and Aria, with a pizzicato passage a la Shostakovich; then follows a Toccata with irregular rhythms; next a Poem which conjures up the atmosphere of an Orthodox hymn; and finally a sublime finale.
Recording listened to: Anatoli Sheludyakov, piano, Irina Tkachenko, violin, Tatiana Zavarskaya, cello, on Olympia (with Children's Notebooks for piano - all first recordings).

15. Edmund Rubbra, Piano Trio in One Movement, Op. 68 (1950)
Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) was an English composer who devised his own distinctive style based on single melodic ideas from which he let the music grow. There is a vocal quality to his overall style. Rubbra's teacher was Gustav Holst (with whom he shared an interest in mysticism). He wrote for all kinds of ensembles (his eleven symphonies are famous), paying much attention to choral music and chamber music. These chamber music works reveal the essence of Rubbra's music more directly than large-scale works can. Especially his approach to form was very individual, a balancing act between improvisatory freedom and intellectual control. Once he had found the right material, he "let the music take care of itself." The Trio in One Movement is a remarkable work, serenely beautiful but at the same time informed with a quiet passion. Although in one movement, there are three distinct sections. The work starts with a reflective, soulful theme presented in octaves by the violin and the cello, with accompanying figuration in the piano. Interestingly, the strings continue unrolling the thematic material in octaves. After the exposition, a cantabile theme introduced by the piano follows. The music then grows and swells to bell-like sounds. We are now halfway the twenty minute work. After an exciting and rhythmically complex Episodio scherzando, comes the final section, a long-breathed theme followed by three variations (Rubbra calls these "meditations"), the still heart of the work. The first meditation is introduced by a chordal passage marked Adagio. When the last meditation dies away with a tolling D at the bottom of the piano, the cello restates the opening theme, leading to a brief coda in which descending scales in violin and cello again emphasize the tolling of bells, bringing the work to an exultant conclusion.
Recording listened to: Endymion Ensemble on Dutton (with Piano Trio No. 2, Oboe Sonata and other chamber works by Rubbra).

P.S. The literature for piano trio is very rich and the above is just a small selection. I have had to leave out many beautiful piano trios and hope to come back to this genre in a second post at a later time.
[Incorporates some information from the CD booklets, Wikipedia, etc. All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed]
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