Piano Trio in D op. 70 no. 1 Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Allegro vivace e con brio
Largo assai ed espressivo
Beethoven’s Middle Period dates roughly from 1802 to 1812, and it was in 1808 that the two piano trios, op. 70, were written, between the sixth (Pastoral) and seventh symphonies. The trios were dedicated to Countess Marie von Erlödy, in whose house in Vienna he was a guest, and where it is recorded that Beethoven performed them “quite masterfully” and “very enthusiastically” with the violinist Schuppanzigh and the cellist Linke.
The first trio opens with a rhythmic flourish, piano and strings in unison, followed by a flowing dolce theme. The whole subject matter of this high-spirited movement is thus established in the first few bars, and the exposition ends with repeated pianissimo chords. After a brilliant development and a recapitulation which further develops the material, the coda reverses the two main themes so that the movement comes full circle to end with the opening motif. It was Beethoven’s pupil Czerny who wrote in 1842 that the second movement reminded him of “the ghost of Hamlet’s father”, giving rise to the work’s nickname of the Ghost Trio. In fact, Beethoven’s notebooks for 1808 do show that he was considering an opera based on Macbeth, and the sketches for this very slow movement do bear the word “Macbett”; perhaps it was intended for the scene with the three witches, as it is filled with brooding menace and mysterious melancholy. It is much the most original of the three movements, using a minimum of material, with slow crescendos and diminuendos, and tremulando accompaniment in the piano part, to mesmerising effect, so that it has been described as “one of the first atmospheric ‘mood pieces’ in music history”. The final movement shakes off the gloom, and in complete contrast is in happy, warm sonata form. The two main melodic ideas have a very similar feel, so that the movement flows effortlessly to its joyful ending.
Last ACMC Performance: the Gould Piano Trio November 1997
Piano Trio Huw Watkins (1976 – )
Hugh Watkins was born in Wales, and studied first at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, and then at King’s College Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. His teachers included Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. From his early 20s, his works has won plaudits, and been widely performed. Chamber music has always been important to him: for example, he has written string quartets for the Petersen and Belcea Quartets, and a Fantasy for viola and piano for Lawrence Power. He has a parallel career as a pianist, performing his own cello sonata with his brother, the cellist Paul Watkins, and giving several first performance of works of other composers.
Huw Watkins writes:
My Piano Trio is in three movements. The first is an energetic Allegro, where the piano takes the leading role initially. The second, slow movement begins quietly but contains two powerful climaxes. The third movement is very fast and begins with the violin and cello alone. The piano interrupts with assertive chords and virtuosic figuration. My Trio was commissioned by Vernon Ellis for the Florestan trio who gave it its first performance.
First ACMC Performance
Trio Élégiaque no. 2 in D minor op. 9 Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)
Quasi variazione: Andante
Tchaikovsky’s troubled life came to an end in November 1893, just when Rachmaninov had begun the composition of his second piano trio, which soon became a memorial to Tchaikovsky. Certainly the young man, only just 20, had been greatly influenced by his older compatriot, who had been one of his professors at the Moscow Conservatoire, and Tchaikovsky in his turn had been an enthusiast for Rachmaninov’s works, recorded as applauding wildly at the first performance of Rachmaninov’s early one-act opera Aleko in 1892. No doubt Rachmaninov’s Trio was also influenced by Tchaikovsky’s own great piano trio, written in homage after the death of his friend the great pianist Rubinstein, even to the inclusion of a set of variations.
The first movement is of epic length (around 20 minutes, as long many a complete Haydn quartet) and contains many changes of tempo, though the overall mood is indeed elegiac. It begins with sombre motiv on the piano, of falling chromatic quavers, joined by a long lament, high on the cello, which is then taken up by the violin. The start of the second section, marked by string pizzicati, becomes impassioned before it winds down to the development section. The recapitulation is heralded by a reflective andante section, with gentle rocking phrases on the strings. The theme for the variation movement, stated by the piano alone, has been associated with a theme from Rachmaninov’s earlier symphonic poem, the Rock. There are seven variations, some more lively, others more meditative. In the last variation, the violin and cello, alone, seem to recall Russian Orthodox chant, before the theme finally reappears. The finale is much shorter, full of angry outbursts, before mourning returns as the lament of the trio’s opening bars is heard again, then gradually dies away.
Rachmaninov was renowned as a virtuoso pianist, and it is not surprising that this work exploits the piano to the full, while the strings generally work in consort against it. A few alterations were made to the score in 1907 (notably removing the alternative instrumentation for a harmonium at the start of the slow movement!) and again in 1917. Although it may be “marked by a certain diffuseness”, perhaps the result of youth and inexperience, the overall impression is of a dramatic work of unrestrained deep feeling. It seems a pity, then, that after around 1900 Rachmaninov wrote no more chamber music.
First ACMC Performance