The piano trio was established as a genre by Mozart in the late 1780s, and continued by Beethoven in 1793 in his "opus 1." The piano trio developed out of the "accompanied keyboard sonata," in which the pianoforte (at that time a rather weakly sounding instrument - the Mozart piano trios with equal forces became only possible after pianos with a stronger sound were developed in Vienna in the 1770s) was accompanied by a violin to strengthen the melody in the right hand and a cello (or other lower string instrument) to double the bass of the keyboard left hand. This also fitted in the performance situation where daughters would get a good education as pianists, meaning they could play also difficult piano parts, and sons would learn to play a string instrument, but only on a rather basic level as music was less important to them. Piano trios by other composers than Mozart and Beethoven (who wrote for professionals and semi-professionals rather than amateurs) would often still be called "accompanied sonatas" in the late 18th century, and would maintain the dominance of the pianoforte, in contrast to Mozart and Beethoven who wrote trios where all voices were of equal importance. Such composers were for example Dussek, Clementi, Pleyel and Kozeluch. Haydn also wrote a great many piano trios (about 45), which all have a dominant piano part - but different from other composers who wrote this type of trios, he greatly developed the piano part and wrote very difficult piano music, which in another way helped the development of the piano trio. Beethoven started writing piano trios consisting of four movements, which became the dominant structure in the 19th c. (although piano trios with three movements also exist). By the mid-nineteenth century, all three instruments had been modified to have a powerful sound, which liberated the piano trio (and other chamber music) from the home music tradition and made it concert music.
In my first article about "Best Piano Trios," I focused on trios by unknown composers. This second article is more a historical overview with important composers added, although there probably still remain "white spots" to fill in by way of a third post - the piano trio is a truly abundant genre (several readers have been so kind to make valuable suggestions; when I don't follow them up now, it is solely because I have not been able yet to listen to the music they have suggested!).
1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Trio in C Major K548 (1788)
Mozart wrote three great piano trios in which all instruments are equal and in which the piano trio was born as a fully developed genre: K502 in B Flat Major (1786), K542 in E Major and K548 in C Major (both 1788). Before that, he wrote the Divertimento in B Flat Major K254 in 1776), which is still more like an elaborate accompanied sonata; and the Piano Trio in G K496 (1786) which still has some problems with integrating the strings (in addition, Piano Trio K465 consists of "workshop debris," possibly from this trio). He also wrote an excellent clarinet trio, K498. Mozart has provided the scope for all three instruments to combine, imitate, alternate and vie with each other. The piano, although used as a concertante instrument, is treated with restraint to allow the strings their full share of the musical argument. We will look here at Mozart's last Piano Trio, the one in C Major. It contains some of Mozart's most successful scoring for the trio medium - the independence of the players is complete. Even though the cello frequently functions as the bass of the ensemble, its music is wholly liberated from the pianist's left hand. The two stringed instruments frequently have passages together without the piano. C Major was for Mozart always a key expressing loftiness - 1788 was also the year he wrote his great C Major symphony. This trio is characterized by richness of harmonic language. It opens with a fanfare-like unison for the whole trio, but for most of the movement it turns to the minor mode, syncopated by a sort of "chromatic sighs." The serene slow movement continues the complete independence of the three instruments, and the cello has a true solo, accompanied by the piano. The Allegro finale starts with a motif which, transformed into another fanfare-like theme, reappears after each of the episodes of this variegated rondo.
Recording listened to: London Fortepiano Trio on Hyperion (authentic instruments; with Piano Trio K254)
2. Joseph Haydn, Piano Trio No 40 in F Sharp Minor Hob XV26 (around 1795)
In contrast to Mozart, Haydn took the keyboard as the core of the piano trio, writing music for it of great brilliance. He was content to confine the strings to a largely coloristic role, to add warmth to the melodic lines or impart strength to the bass. They never determine the formal structure in any significant way. The violin is granted some independence in the later trios, but the role of the cello always remains very restricted. But, by the example of his masterful piano writing and structural inventiveness, also Haydn exerted an important influence on the new genre. Haydn wrote about 45 piano trios: 16 early works in the 1760s which still have the character of accompanied sonatas (the authenticity of some works from this period is doubtful); 14 works composed between 1784 and 1790, still designed mainly for the harpsichord; and 15 late trios written between 1794 and 1797, chiefly during the period of Haydn's second visit to London - these were intended for the piano and not for the harpsichord. These 15 late trios are clearly the most interesting. When Haydn wrote them, the above-mentioned trios by Mozart had already appeared, as well as the first three Piano Trios by Beethoven, which build further on Mozart. To this last group belongs the Piano Trio No. 40 in F Sharp Minor, in a key that harks back to Haydn's Sturm und Drang period of the 1770s. It is filled with a tense melancholy, but without loss of energy. The slow movement may be a reworking of the equivalent movement in the Symphony No. 102 (but it could also be the other way around). The finale is profound and tautly reined.
Recording listened to: London Fortepiano Trio on Hyperion (authentic instruments; with Piano Trios Nos 38 and 39).
3. Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano trio in B Flat Major Op 97 "Archduke" (1811, pub. 1816)
The importance of the piano trio for Beethoven is demonstrated by the fact that his Opus 1 consists of three piano trios. He wrote six in all (plus two apprentice works without opus number). After the three trios Op. 1, composed in 1793, these are two trios Op. 70 (1809) and one final piano trio, the one nicknamed "Archduke" after its dedication to Archduke Rudolph, written in 1811 but only published in 1816. Beethoven built further on the foundation laid by Mozart, but already in his early trios moved towards a more expansive conception of the genre. Although Haydn's influence is noticeable in the piano writing, there is also a new element of flamboyancy, probably derived from the virtuoso composers of the time as Dussek and Clementi. The "Archduke" trio possesses a true grandeur, which makes it one of the finest piano trios ever written. The first movement opens with an unforgettable, cantabile tune at a leisurely pace. The Scherzo is humorous, rather than savage or gruff. The slow movement is a set of variations on a hymn-like melody. Its main quality is serenity. The rondo finale begins with a jaunty melody which has a Hungarian flavor to it. The whole trio is infused with luminosity, with a particular feeling of happiness.
Recording listened to: Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano), Itzak Perlman (violin) and Lynn Harrell (cello) on EMI (Complete Piano Trios).
4. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Piano Trio No. 7 in E Flat Major Op. 96 (1822)
Hummel (1778-1837) was Mozart's favorite pupil (Hummel lived with the Mozart household and was treated like a son) and a virtuoso pianist and interesting composer in his own right. He wrote operas, masses, seven piano concertos and a large body of chamber music. He wrote no fewer than eight piano trios, the earliest an apprentice work from 1792, the other seven mature works composed between 1799 and the early 1820s. The Trio in E Flat Major was the last one Hummel wrote. The compact first movement is built on two contrasting themes. The second movement is a set of variations, although not described as such, perhaps because they are charmingly irregular. The last movement is a sonata-rondo "in the Russian style." The main theme is permeated by a dactylic rhythm associated with the polonaise.
Recording listened to: The Borodin Trio on Chandos (with Piano Trios Nos 1 & 5).
5. Schubert, Piano Trio No 1 in B Flat Major Op. 99 D. 898 (1827-28)
Schubert wrote two piano trios, both towards the end of his short life: the present one from 1827-28 and the one in E Flat Major from 1828, his last year. The E Flat Major trio was the more popular trio in the 19th century, thanks to its heroic mode, but nowadays the lyrical B Flat major trio is more highly regarded. Both are large-scale works, in the grand style of Beethoven's "Archduke" trio, full of spontaneous melodies. The B-Flat Major trio starts with a most happy and carefree sonata-allegro. Its bubbly opening theme is played on the violin and cello, and then turned over to the piano while the strings take over the bouncing accompaniment. The cello then presents the second theme, a wonderfully heartwarming melody, charming and lyrical. In the slow movement with its lullaby melody the cello is again used as a principal instrument. The third movement is in the classical minuet form, with the trio section resembling a relaxed waltz. The last dance-like movement is a rondo, of which the Viennese-sounding main theme is first presented by the violin. The free-form rondo also contains a rustic polonaise with drone effects in the piano. This trio is truly a life-affirming work.
Recording listened to: Beaux Arts Trio on Philips (Complete Piano Trios).
6. Felix Mendelssohn, Piano Trio No 1 in D Minor Op 49 (1839).
While Schumann has been credited with creating the Romantic piano quartet and piano quintet, with the present work Mendelssohn created the Romantic piano trio. The trio was written during Mendelssohn's appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, exerting himself to develop the musical life of that city which from then on would be central to 19th c. German music. The work exudes the sort of creative confidence that comes with personal success - at only thirty, Mendelssohn was acknowledged by the public as a fine composer and the leading conductor of his day. The first movement is characterized by a broad lyricism and strong Romantic passion. The following Andante is a beautifully proportioned "song without words." The whirlwind Scherzo has been said to even surpass its counterpart in A Midsummer Night's Dream in its brilliance. The driving, rhythmic Finale has symphonic ambitions, almost threatening to burst out of the score. In 1845 Mendelssohn wrote a Second Piano Trio that he dedicated to Louis Spohr.
Recording listened to: The Barbican Piano Trio on ASV (with music for piano trio by Ireland and Bush).
7. Louis Spohr, Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major Op 123 (1842)
Braunschweig-born Louis (Ludwig) Spohr (1784-1859) was one of the leading composers and violinists of the first half of the 19th century. Highly regarded during his lifetime, Spohr wrote ten symphonies, ten operas, eighteen violin concerti, four clarinet concerti, four oratorios and a huge number of works for chamber music ensemble (36 string quartets, 7 string quintets, five piano trios, four double quartets, etc.), all hovering between Classicism and Romanticism. As "trivia," it can be mentioned that he was the inventor of both the violin chin rest and the orchestral rehearsal mark; as conductor, he pioneered the use of the baton. Spohr's Second Piano Trio is the one written on the largest scale. The first movement Allegro moderato begins with a powerful opening phrase, while the second subject offers an example of imaginative scoring. The following Larghetto is a remarkable piece, starting with the cello (with only the piano for a soft accompaniment) in its lower registers singing a sad song. The violin later steals in as a consolatory middle voice. The Scherzo has some grotesque properties, with a haunting dance tune. The Vivace finale opens in the minor but leads to a decisive and satisfying final homecoming.
Recording listened to: Hartley Piano Trio on Naxos (with Fourth Piano Trio).
8. Alexander Ernst Fesca, Piano Trio No 5 Op 46 in B Minor (1845)
Alexander Ernst Fesca (1820-1849) was born in Karlsruhe as the son of the composer and music director Friedrich Ernst Fesca (whose symphonies are available on CPO). He received his first lessons from his father and later attended the Prussian Royal Conservatory in Berlin where he graduated with a degree in composition at the young age of 14. He then took up residence in Braunschweig as a chamber virtuoso to the local Prince. Unfortunately, Fesca died young from a lung ailment, which also led to him being forgotten, although his chamber music (including six piano trios) was very popular during his lifetime. The present Piano Trio was composed in Braunschweig in 1845 and is a most appealing work with a wealth of beautiful melodies. The first movement starts with an Andante con sentimento introduction in the style of a Barcarole in the major; as a contrast, this is followed by the hard-driving movement proper which is in the minor. The second movement is a highly charged Romance. Next comes a Scherzo which has the flavor of a rustic folk dance with bagpipe. The finale features more beautiful melodies; it is in sonata form but skips the development section.
Recording listened to: Trio Paian on CPO (with Piano Trio No 2).
9. Robert Schumann, Piano Trio No 1 in D Minor Op. 63 (1847)
Although Schumann in 1842 had written a seminal piano quartet and quintet, he didn't write a full-pledged piano trio until 1847 (in 1842, he wrote the lighter Fantasiestücke for piano trio). In fact, his wife Clara who was a great pianist - whose piano career was stalled as she had to work as housewife and rear children - wrote an interesting piano trio in 1846, stimulating her husband to try anew. In the end, Schumann would write three piano trios, two in 1847 and another one in 1851. The First Piano Trio was written in a two-week burst of inspiration in the summer of 1847, and was clearly inspired by Mendelssohn's trio in the same key. It starts with energy and passion on a dark theme. Throughout the surging first theme, the pianist plays rapid arpeggios outlining the harmony. Schumann's most ingenious stroke in the movement is the new theme in the development section. This is followed by a restless Scherzo and a generously lyrical slow movement. The impetuous finale is run through with polyphonic passages. At end, all shadows are banished in a triumphant D major return of the first movement's opening theme.
Recording listened to: The Borodin Trio on Chandos (Complete piano trios).
10. Friedrich Kiel, Piano Trio No 5 in G Major Op. 34 (1854)
Friedrich Kiel (1821-1885) first had music lessons from his father, a teacher, and later through the assistance of Louis Spohr, received a scholarship to study composition and counterpoint in Berlin with the renowned theorist Siegfried Dehn. Kiel later taught at the Stern Conservatory and the new Musikhochschule in Berlin. Although he also wrote a famous oratorio, Kiel generally excelled in chamber rather than symphonic music. One of his best works is the three movement Fifth Piano Trio, which boasts a fine melodic vein and excellent piano writing. It also shows Kiel's modesty, in the hesitancy with which the melody of the first movement makes its appearance. The second movement, Intermezzo, is characterized by an agitated middle section. The Finale starts out quite lively before turning inward to serenity - a term which perhaps aptly characterizes the mood of this whole, very appealing trio.
Recording listened to: Abegg Trio on Tacet (with Piano Trio by Goetz).
11. Bedrich Smetana, Piano Trio in G Minor Op. 15 (1855)
The Piano Trio was Smetana's (1824-1884) first chamber composition. It was written in 1855 to the memory of his first child, Bediska, who had died in September that year, at the age of four. The trio is thus an elegiac work, the first in a lengthy succession of such compositions for the medium by both Czech and Russian composers, as Dvorak, Foerster (see my first piano trio post), Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Arensky. While the Czech trios were conceived as personal expressions of grief over the loss of a close relative, the Russian ones were designed as tributes to the decease of distinguished professional colleagues. The Smetana Trio opens with the violin alone, playing the principal theme on the G string. The first movement is imbued with a stark atmosphere of tragedy. The second movement is a Scherzo framing two contrasting sections, an Andante and a Maestoso, in which an image of the dead daughter is called up. The Finale is a rondo built on a lyrical cello theme that symbolizes resurrection and transfiguration; despite a temporary step back into a funeral march, it is this positive music that concludes the trio. This trio by Smetana is generally considered as one of the most important examples of the genre in the second half of the 19th c., as striking for its individuality as for the sincerity of its expression.
Recording listened to: Trio Parnassus on MDG (with Piano Trio Op 32 by Arensky).
12. Camille Saints-Saens, Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major Op. 18 (1869)
Saint-Saens was an important chamber music composer, who left some fifty chamber works. Among these are two piano trios: the first one written in 1863 at the age twenty-eight; the second one in 1892 when he was fifty-seven. Although the Second Piano Trio is more ambitious (but also rather self-consciously "learned" in style), it lacks the freshness and effectiveness of the First Piano Trio which we will discuss here. The first movement starts with a youthful and natural theme, one of the most charming Saint-Saens ever wrote. The whole movement is filled with gaiety and joy of adventure and has a typically French harmonic vocabulary. The expressive Andante unfolds like an ancient ballad. The opening theme is intoned over a drone, like a hurdy-gurdy. The Scherzo sets out with a nonchalant, tongue-in-cheek character, full of cross-rhythms and pizzicato effects, and ends with another swing of the hurdy-gurdy. The Allegro finale starts with a naively sounding dialogue between violin and cello, accompanied by the piano, which as gradually becomes clear plays a half-hidden melody that will play an important part in this movement. The second theme is more vigorous and there are many opportunities for brilliance in the piano. A movement of delicate buoyancy.
Recording listened to: The Nash Ensemble on Virgin Classics (with Septet and Le Carnaval des animaux)
13. Edouard Lalo, Piano Trio No 3 in A Minor Op. 26 (1880)
Edouard Lalo (1823-1892) was born in Lille and studied the violin in Paris, but he never entered the Conservatoire. Although Lalo later turned passionately to the theater and symphonic works, the first part of his career was dominated by chamber music. Of Lalo's three piano trios the most outstanding is the last one in A Minor, composed in 1880. It impresses by its fresh thematic ideas, and also by its firmly controlled classical structure. The first movement Allegro appassionata starts with the statement of the main theme by the cello, accompanied by arpeggios on the piano. The lively scherzo contains a trio section based on Fauré's First Piano Quartet, published the year before. It is a perpetuum mobile with a very pronounced rhythm, swift and brilliant as lightning, and was later orchestrated by Lalo. The slow movement is particularly beautiful and subtle, a sweet reverie possessing great romantic warmth. The rhythmical Finale is full of spirit and ends with a bubbling coda.
Recording listened to: Trio Henry on Disques Pierre Verany (Complete Piano Trios by Lalo).
14. Antonín Dvořák, Piano Trio No 3 in F Minor Op 65 (1883)
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) wrote a large body of chamber music, including fourteen string quartets, three string quintets, a string sextet, two piano quintets, two piano quartets and four piano trios. Two of these trios fit into the Czech tradition of "funeral piano trios," as mentioned above in the section about Smetana. Dvořák wrote an earlier Piano Trio in G minor after the death of his eldest daughter, and the present one in F minor came into being shortly after the death of the composer's mother. In this strongly felt piano trio Dvořák also appears at his most Brahmsian, although the melodic style remains as always resolutely Slavonic. The first movement is full of passion, with a brooding and ominous opening theme. The second subject is more tender but in the development section the first theme gets more attention. The second movement, Allegretto grazioso, is not a scherzo, but a graceful dance in polka rhythm on a folk-style theme. It provides some relief after the drama we have just experienced. The slow movement starts on the cello with piano accompaniment, bringing a warmly eloquent theme. This movement is again very much in the style of Brahms. The finale is a large-scale sonata rondo, based on an exhilarating theme in the style of a Furiant, an energetic Czech dance characterized by cross-rhythms and off-beat accents. The second theme has a more sedate, waltz-like character. As stated above, there are in all four piano trios by Dvořák: in B Flat Op 21 and G Minor Op 26, both substantial four movement works written some eight years before the present trio, and the so-called Dumky trio of 1891, his most popular. But I think the F Minor Piano Trio discussed here is his most grandiose and serious in intent.
Recording listened to: Emanual Ax, piano, Young Uck Kim, violin, and Yo-yo Ma, cello, on CBS (with "Dumky" trio).
15. Johannes Brahms, Piano Trio No 3 in C Minor Op 101 (1886)
Brahms’s final piano trio was one of three chamber works (with the F Major Cello Sonata and A Major Violin Sonata) composed during an extended stay at Lake Thun, Switzerland, in 1886, which all exemplify the best of Brahms' late style. The Third Piano Trio is a compact and taut work, full of intensity, although still in the usual four movements. The Allegro energico starts with a dramatic statement, a sort of call for attention, as the restless first theme is played by the three instruments. The second theme is very lyrical and first presented in the cello, but the intensity never wanes. The exposition is not repeated, the development section is terse, and the recapitulation abbreviated. The movement is brought to a close with a powerfully, impassioned coda. This all gives a rather overwhelming effect. In the short Presto non assai the violin and cello are muted, it is more an intermezzo than a scherzo. The Andante grazioso is serene and has a mellow theme. Just like the second movement, it ends rather abruptly. The urgent theme of the Finale brings us back to seriousness, and although the mode switches from C Minor to C Major near the end, the passion and hectic drama are maintained all the way. The finish can even be called aggressive. This is a very muscular work, but also true chamber music, not a symphony masking as a trio. Brahms earlier piano trios were written in 1854 and 1882; the First Piano Trio is a lyrical and spacious work, Brahms first published chamber music written when he was just twenty years old, while the mature Second Piano Trio forms a pair with the Third Trio, but warm and expansive where the Third Trio is taut and dramatic.
Recording listened to: The Borodin Trio on Chandos (Complete Piano Trios).
16. Christian Sinding, Piano Trio No 2 in A Minor Op 64 (1902)
Christian Sinding (1856-1941) was a Norwegian composer, just one generation younger than Edvard Grieg. He studied with Jadassohn and Reinecke in Leipzig and always maintained a cosmopolitan, Romantic style - he was not a folklorist like Grieg. In 1896, Sinding wrote a highly effective piano piece, Frühlingsrauschen, that made him rich, but unfortunately has blotted out the rest of his legacy. The Second Piano Trio is generally seen as one of Sinding's best chamber works. It has a general Nordic mood and broadly flowing melodies, which are frequently modulated. The Allegro con brio has a heroic nature. The piano part is brilliant and virtuoso, so much that - as the strings also often play in unison - it almost becomes a mini piano concerto. After the lyrical second movement follows a finale where the mood finally turns to major. The trio concludes with a glorious and satisfying coda.
Recording listened to: Ilona Prunyi, piano, Andras Kiss, violin, amd Tamas Koo, cello, on Marco Polo (with Third Piano Trio).
17. Charles Ives, Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1904-1911)
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was an American modernist composer, whose music was largely ignored during his lifetime, although today he has become a sort of "cult composer" (see my post on Ives and other cult composers). Besides two string quartets and four violin sonatas, the piano trio is Ives' major chamber music work. It is meant to reflect the time the composer spent at Yale University, from which he graduated in 1898. The short first movement recalls a lecture given by an old philosophy professor who keeps repeating himself. The second movement, suggesting the “games and antics by the students on a holiday afternoon,” is densely polytonal, a pastiche of borrowed popular songs. The lyrical last movement, which is by far the longest, has a gentle rocking melody, growing into light, syncopated sections between the piano and strings. At one time, it quotes a song Ives had written in 1896 for the Yale Glee Club (it was rejected). And the coda quotes Thomas Hastings’ “Rock of Ages” in the cello, ending the movement with Ives’ characteristic roots in American folk music. Ives' piano trio, together with his string quartets and violin sonatas, provided an important foundation for later American chamber composition in the 20th century.
Recording listened to: Ronan Lefkowitz, Violin, Yo-yo Ma, Cello, and Gilbert Kalish, Piano, on Sony Classical (with chamber music by Bernstein, Kirchner and Gershwin under the title "Made in America").
18. Maurice Ravel, Piano Trio in A Minor (1914)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was born in a Basque town near Biarritz in southern France and studied music at the Paris Conservatoire. He developed a style of great clarity, incorporating elements of Baroque and Neo-Classicism; as a perfectionist, he worked slowly and left relatively few works. He wrote seven chamber music works. The Piano Trio was written in the summer of 1914 and Ravel worked at higher than usual speed to complete it so that he could join the army as a truck driver. The first movement's tempo is marked Modéré, a languidly unfolding, almost traditional sonata form. The main theme is based on the rhythm of a Basque dance. It has an unusual ostinato rhythm. The second movement is called “Pantoum,” a Malaysian verse form in which the second and fourth lines of each four-line stanza become the first and third lines of the next. Perhaps it refers to the way the two themes of this scherzo are developed in alternation. But it also sounds like something out of a different world. The third slow movement is a Passacaglia, the trio's center of gravity. The theme is played with variations over a constantly repeated bass line and leads to a powerful climax before dying away. The lively finale with shifting meters exploits the resources of the three players to the utmost and results in a brilliant coda.
Recording listened to: The Arden Trio on Delos (with Second Piano Trio by Saint-Saens).
19. Guy Ropartz, Piano Trio in A Minor (1918)
Guy Ropartz (1864-1955) studied at the Paris Conservatory under Dubois and Massenet, and organ with César Franck. His musical style was influenced by Claude Debussy and César Franck, and he enjoyed a long career as teacher and conductor. Ropartz was born in Brittany and strongly identified with the Breton cultural renaissance. His compositions include symphonic music, religious music, and also numerous chamber works, such as six string quartets and three violin sonatas. The spirited and substantial Piano Trio of 1918 starts with a poetic movement in moderate tempo. By contrast, the Scherzo is an energetic outdoor dance. The third movement is a song without words leading straight into the finale, which opens with tolling bells on the piano launching another vigorous, folk-inflected main theme. This piano trio reflects the war years in its often troubled and anguished atmosphere.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Stanislas on Timpani (with Fourth String Quartet etc.).
20. Heitor Villa-Lobos, Piano Trio No. 3 (1918)
The Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is the best-known and most significant Latin American composer to date. He wrote more than 2,000 works, including numerous orchestral, chamber, instrumental and vocal works, and was influenced by both Brazilian folk music and by stylistic elements from the European classical tradition. He was mostly self-taught; in 1917 he met Diagilev on tour in Brazil, and also Darius Milhaud, who introduced him to the music of Debussy and Satie. In the 1920s, Villa-Lobos stayed for several years in Paris, where he met such luminaries as Edgard Varèse, Pablo Picasso, Leopold Stokowski and Aaron Copland. By the time Villa-Lobos wrote his Third Piano Trio in 1918, he had begun the process of integrating his Brazilian heritage with European classical techniques. The first movement is dominated by a theme of Brazilian provenance first announced by the cello, a motif that will reappear in the other movements as well. A lyrical second movement is followed by two movements of "Brazilian modernity" - aggressive rhythms, mysterious melismas, and plenty of vibrant energy.
Recording listened to: Artistrio on Masters of Art (with Piano Trio No. 1).
21. Robert Fuchs, Piano Trio No 3 in F-sharp Minor Op 115
(1921; for violin, viola and piano)
Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) attended the University of Vienna Conservatory and became himself a professor there in 1875. He was a famous teacher who counted Mahler, Sibelius, Hugo Wolf, Franz Schmidt, Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker among his students. He lived a quiet life in Vienna and did little to promote his own compositions, perhaps a reason why these are so little known. Besides symphonic and choral works, he concentrated on chamber music, including four string quartets, two piano quartets, six violin sonatas and two cello sonatas. He also wrote three piano trios, two in the normal instrumentation, plus the present one, his last, for piano with violin and viola instead of cello. Initially influenced by Brahms, around 1900 Fuchs' musical language became somewhat more harsh, with complex counterpoint. His harmonic language also changed and we find an interesting combination of post-Romantic elements with 19th century effusion. His melodies have a typical Austrian character. Although there is some melancholy too, the Third Piano Trio basically is a deliciously dance-like work, like a 19th c. waltz hard in retrospect. It is in four movements.
Recording listened to: Guilio Plotino, violin, Claudio Cavaletti, viola, and Enrico Maria Polimanti, paino, on Brilliant Classics (with Violin Sonata etc.).
22. Gabriel Fauré, Piano Trio in D Minor Op 120 (1923)
Although Gabriel Fauré wrote two piano quartets and also two piano quintets, he composed only one piano trio, in 1923 when he was already in his seventy-eight year. He undertook the work at the prompting of his publisher, Jacques Durand, and first set about writing a work for clarinet, cello and piano, before turning to the more usual instrumentation. It is a work of great depth and vitality. Fauré managed to pack more musical content in its 17 minutes than most other composers in works twice or thrice as long. It is a work of restraint that develops gradually, like an organ improvisation. The opening movement is based on two long-breathed melodies, developed and extended as the movement takes its course. Both melodies are characteristic of Fauré, in a musical language familiar from his songs. The slow second movement - which was the first movement of the trio Fauré wrote - is an extended, song-like meditation on three themes. It entrusts the first theme to violin and cello, with accompanying chords from the piano. After so much lyricism, the strenuous third movement, which combines scherzo and finale, comes as a sort of surprise. After a repeated motif, like a call to order, an accented, rustic dance follows, with much scope for virtuoso piano work. This is one of the finest trios ever written.
Recording listened to: Members Parrenin Quartet with Jean-Philippe Collard, piano, on EMI Classics (with String Quartet Op. 121)
23. Aaron Copland, Piano Trio "Vitebsk" (1929)
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was an American composer, teacher, and conductor who was instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition. He studied, among others, with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Copland is in the first place famous for his symphonic music, but he also wrote several interesting chamber works. The Piano Trio is a single movement work. The title refers to the birthplace of a Jewish playwright, in whose play figures the Jewish folk song (a solemn chant) on which Copland based his trio. At that time, Copland was fresh from his studies with Madame Boulanger and very much in an avant-gardistic mood - the same period saw the creation of sparse, often strident works like the Piano Variations (1930) and the Symphonic Ode (1927 - 29). In the trio he makes, for example, extensive use of quartertones. The trio is more specifically Jewish than American in style (but Copland's only work to be so) and comprises a number of contrasted meditations on the central folk music. It was Copland's goal to portray Jewish life in the shtetl (village) under harsh conditions; accordingly, the harmony and texture have a spiky quality that gives the work its distinctive sound. Before the folk theme is introduced on the cello, the opening section poses quarter-tone passages in the strings against stark, unyielding piano chords to call to mind the shofar, the ceremonial ram's horn blown in Jewish services (this probably is an instrument like the Japanese horagai, a shell trumpet used by ascetic mountain priests, and I can testify that the timbre exactly fits!). The quartertones and dissonances in the trio create a fully atonal effect. A powerful and challenging work.
Recording listened to: Orchester-Akademie des Berliner Philharmonischen Orchesters on Torofon (with Sextet, Violin Sonata and Duo for Flute and Piano).
The prolific Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) studied under Suk and worked as a violinist, before moving to Paris in 1823 at the age of 33 as his modernist style did not suit the ears of his countrymen. In Paris, he became a disciple of Albert Roussel, who himself had just turned to neo-classical forms of expression. Under his guidance, Martinu developed a highly personal style, which retained links with the folk idioms of his Czech homeland. Martinu composed in almost every genre and left a large body of chamber music. His First Piano Trio, subtitled "Cinq pièces brèves," comprises a series of five short, contrasting character pieces, in a powerfully athletic style, with vivid neo-Baroque motor-rhythms, closely-wrought counterpoint and a bitter-sweet harmonic palette. Most movements are medium-fast to fast; only the second movement is a slow cantabile, in which a warmly expressive duet in the strings, unaccompanied, is commented upon by the piano in quiet chordal passages. This brilliantly scored piano trio gives an impression of "steely efficiency." After he had moved to New York, in the early fifties, Martinu would write two more piano trios.
Recording listened to: Prague Trio on Music Vars (complete piano trios).
25. Dmitri Shostakovich, Piano Trio No. 2 Op. 67 (1944)
Shostakovich' Second Piano Trio was, like his Second String Quartet and Eight Symphony, composed at one of the darkest periods of WWII. It is dedicated to the memory of Ivan Sollertinsky, a talented musicologist and close friend of the composer who had died in a Nazi concentration camp during that year. The trio thus fits in the Russian tradition of the "funeral piano trio," intended as an expression of deep sorrow. The opening of the first movement is very original: a plaintive melody is played con sordino on the cello, in a very haunting way. This is the so-called "Jewish theme," brought here as a shrill and tortured voice. The Scherzo has an air of forced jollity, with loud, emphatic themes and intentionally crude scoring. The third movement is a passacaglia with six statements of the theme (five are in fact variations), built into an elegiac duet for the strings. The formal procedure here is similar to that used by Ravel in the slow movement of his trio. The rondo finale returns, with its patterns of lively dance rhythms, to the style of the Scherzo, but with a harsher mood of bitterness and despair. It has been called the "merging into one image of the mocking executioner and his defenseless victim." With its extravagant sonorities, this piano trio strains at the limits of the chamber style, but it also demonstrates a near-classical equilibrium between form, content and instrumentation. (Shostakovich composed one more piano trio, but that is a youth work written in 1923 when he was 17.)
Recording listened to: The Borodin Trio on Chandos (with Piano Quintet).
[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. Special mention should be made of the interesting study The Piano Trio, Its History, Technique, and Repertoire by Basil Smallman (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1990). All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
Posts about classical music include:
- Best Cello Concertos
- Best Cello Sonatas
- Best Works for Oboe
- Best Works for Viola
- Best Flute Concertos
- Unique Symphonies from the 19th Century
- Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard
- Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen