Johannes Brahms: Piano Trio no. 3 in C minor, Op. 101
This is the last work Brahms wrote for the piano trio. It is a magnificent work in every respect, from the sharply etched melodies to the concision and masterly manner in which they are handled. It is also one of Brahms’s most compact scores, tightly and concisely argued using a minimum of melodic substance developed with maximum efficiency. Brahms seemed to reserve C minor for some of his weightiest, most dramatic and gravely serious works – the First Symphony, the First String Quartet and the Third Piano Quartet come to mind. The first performances – in Hofstetten and Budapest that year – were private ones. The Trio’s official public premiere took place on February 26, 1887 in Vienna with members of the Heckmann Quartet and Brahms at the piano.
The very opening is sufficient to arrest the listener’s attention and hold it for the duration of the movement: a bold, even fierce gesture that biographer Malcolm MacDonald refers to as “explosive wrath.” This first subject consists of several elements, including a tautly rhythmic figure for the three instruments in unison. The second theme, though warmly lyrical, brings no relaxation of the tension and momentum.
The second movement, also in C minor, is mysterious, almost wraithlike, yet also of great delicacy. MacDonald calls it “a profoundly uneasy movement of grey half-lights, rapid stealthy motion, and suppressed sadness.” The central episode changes to block chords for the piano and pizzicato for the strings, but the mood remains subdued. The dynamic level rarely rises above piano.
The third movement’s main features are a relaxed mood of tenderness and natural simplicity with an antiphonal treatment of piano and strings and an irregular metre of 7/4. The key is now C major rather than C minor. For the central section the music moves into another rare metre, 15/8 (five equal groups of triplets).
The sonata-form finale returns to C minor and to the spirit of grim determination that dominated the first. As in the monumental First Symphony, drama and fury give way to radiant warmth, and C minor yields to C major in the final pages.
Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Trio no. 2 in C minor, Op. 66
Six years after writing his first piano trio (1839), Mendelssohn produced a second. It was first performed on December 20, 1845 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where Mendelssohn was serving as conductor of its famous orchestra. The musicians were the orchestra’s concertmaster Ferdinand David, cellist Franz Karl Witmann and the composer as pianist.
The first movement, in perfectly constructed sonata-form, opens with a restless, flowing subject for the piano, soon joined by the strings. The second subject is a glorious, life-affirming theme in E flat major. The exposition is not repeated, perhaps since the development section is so extensive and does such a thorough job of working out both themes with great inventiveness.
The slow movement offers a good measure of consolation after the relentless pace and intensity of the first. It is a three-part structure, with the outer ones gently songlike and set to the pervasive rhythmic pattern of short-long, short-long. The central section has a more flowing quality and is sustained by the piano’s continuous triplet figures.
The Scherzo flies by in a blizzard of notes. It is further characterized by much imitative writing and by a vaguely Hungarian gypsy flavor.
In its powerful sonorities, massive piano chords, extremes of range, seriousness of purpose and overall intensity, the finale seems to speak more of Brahms than of Mendelssohn. Another feature of this movement is the incorporation of a chorale-like theme that has had scholars searching intently for its German-Lutheran origin – in vain. The Trio concludes with an extensive, exuberant coda in C major that is nearly symphonic is scope.
Franz Schubert: Piano Trio no. 2 in E flat major, Op. 100 (D. 929)
If the public today holds a slight preference for the first of Schubert’s two piano trios, the one in B flat major, this is countered by Schubert’s own preference for the other, in E flat. Both reflect the composer’s study of similar works by Mozart and Beethoven in their refined compositional technique and equal partnership of three instruments. The first performance was given on the day after Christmas, 1827 at the Musikverein in Vienna. Exactly three months later, in the same hall, Schubert performed the piano part at the only public concert he ever gave. The concert was an artistic and financial success, but the event was never repeated.
Lasting about forty minutes in performance, the E flat Trio is longer than any Schubert symphony except the Great C major. Although it does not contain as many beguiling themes as does the B flat Trio, it has even fuller, almost symphonic textures with greater brilliance and more breadth to the development sections.
The first movement is constructed from four thematic ideas. The first of these, memorable as it is, and boldly stated in the opening bars, turns out to be the one Schubert employs the least, while the last of them is the one he exploits to the fullest. The melancholy cast of the slow movement derives from a Swedish ballad Schubert presumably borrowed after hearing a tenor sing it. The Scherzo is a canon, with close imitation between piano and strings, while its central Trio section takes on the quality of a waltz. The finale breathes an air of carefree charm and lightness, at least initially. The second theme offers marked contrast of mood, metre and key. The movement develops into one of the longest Schubert ever wrote, over a thousand measures in the original version, but even in reduced form, as commonly played today, it runs to nearly fifteen minutes. Schumann’s description of Schubert’s final symphony as being “of heavenly length” can again be invoked for the finale of the E flat trio.
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.