Franz Joseph Haydn
Piano Trio in F sharp minor, Hob. XV/26
Haydn’s piano trios are really just accompanied piano sonatas, with the cello doubling the bass line and the violin the melody on top. Such a stylistically regressive texture, so unlike the string quartet’s ideal of conversation between musical equals, nevertheless had its advantages. As Charles Rosen has pointed out, these doublings compensated for the thinness of tone in the contemporary fortepiano, allowing the instrument to shine where it could produce the greatest effect—in the creation of sparkling passagework. Indeed, Rosen writes that Haydn’s piano trios are, “along with the Mozart concertos the most brilliant piano works before Beethoven.”
Display vehicles such as these from the pen of a fashionable composer were much in demand, and there were many pianists, women pianists in particular, panting in the wings to play them. Or perhaps just panting after Haydn himself. For the composer’s trips to London in the 1790s had shown him to be a ‘player’ in more than the strictly instrumental sense of the term. To judge by the four sets of piano trios he dedicated to four different women with whom he was on terms of varying intimacy in the English capital.
His F sharp minor Trio dates from his second English sojourn (1794–95), one of a set of three trios dedicated to Rebecca Schroeter, a wealthy British widow with whom Haydn was having an affair. The work displays the relaxed tone that the trio genre had developed in Haydn’s hands, its informality crowned by the dance-like minuet that serves as its finale.
The opening Allegro makes little, at first, of the unusual key of F sharp minor in which it is set, ducking at the first opportunity into A major, a more congenial tonality for the churning passagework and cascades of runs that follow. Haydn may not have showered his lovers with glittering diamonds, but they never lacked for sparkling runs, which he doled out with a liberal hand. The development section ups the drama quotient considerably, with modulatory wanderings into rather remote keys, adding punch to the proceedings with off-beat accents and echoing dynamics.
The following Adagio cantabile returns to the sweetness of the major mode in the sharp-encrusted key of F sharp major, and it is in this movement that the violin gets to shine briefly in the spotlight, taking over from the piano to extend the principal melody out for its leisurely second strain. The main focus of this tender, but slightly mysterious movement remains, however, on the iridescent tonal colouring of the piano’s decorative filigree in the high register of the keyboard.
The Minuetto finale is an intriguing little piece, more serious in tone than would have been expected for a dance movement. While its dotted rhythms maintain a Program Notes II 17 tone of apparent cheer throughout, the overall impression is one of suspense as a result of the dark colouring of the minor mode, the dramatic leap of a diminished 7th in the opening melody, and the frequent use of the low keyboard range. Even the major-mode trio, based on the same thematic material, does little to dispel the sense of mystery, and the sonata-like coda at the end only deepens it.
Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 3
Ernest Chausson was a composer of solid academic credentials but small output, perhaps because of the financial ease in which he lived. He didn’t compose because he had to, but because he wanted to. He is best known today for his songs, especially Le Temps des lilas, and his Poème for violin and orchestra, works that situate him squarely in the French school of clear, transparent textures, vaporous poetic conceits, and the pursuit of fleeting moments of melodic charm.
But he was also a composer much alive to the musical currents of his time. His studies with César Franck left him much impressed with that composer’s use of cyclic form, a compositional approach that sees prominent themes and motives recur in the various movements of a work. Equally influential was his admiration for the grandiose visions and harmonic boldness of Wagner.
All of these enthusiasms find an outlet in his first major work, his Op. 3, the Piano Trio in G minor, composed in 1881 when Chausson was in his mid-twenties. Its general cast of gloominess may have been influenced by his recent failure to qualify for the Prix de Rome competition for composers, and its aggressive emotional volatility by a desire to prove the judges wrong with a display of compositional prowess in a work of major proportions.
Setting the stage for this four-movement essay in cyclic form is the first movement’s opening section, Pas trop lent, which introduces the constituent elements and cells of melody that will be cycled through the work: a thick rumble of arpeggiated chords in the low register of the piano, a repeated-note fanfare and chromatic descent in the cello, and a quietly yearning melody in the violin, full of wistfully drooping thirds. These elements inform the melodic strands permeating the following Animé section of the movement, in sonata form. In this main section it is the strings above all that draw the rapturous lyrical consequences of the opening introduction’s melodic materials while the piano lays down an endless flow of imaginative figurations that keeps them enveloped in a near-constant sonic wrap of piano sonority extending over several octaves of the keyboard. And, in case you forgot where it all started, the movement ends drilling home the importance of the opening’s repeated-note fanfare.
The following scherzo, Vite, is the only movement not overtly quoting cyclical material. It begins playfully coy about its intentions before breaking into a jaunty tune spun out against a pulsing background of rhythmic patter. Part of the charm in this movement is how the strings’ impulse to sing out with a sustained melody is undercut by the chirping of twinkling grace notes in the piano.
The slow movement, Assez lent, is a brooding elegy that takes as its point of departure the ‘drooping thirds’ melody presented at the opening of the first movement. Delicately textured in its outer sections, it rises in its middle section to a paroxysm of passion, led by urgings of the strings in unison over increasingly agitated piano figuration.
The Animé finale is the most dramatic movement of the work, a cruel set-up that begins in blithe good spirits but grows increasingly sombre with the remembrance of darker material from the first movement. Its opening gambit is a lilting waltz of music-hall tunefulness in a carefree G major that, bit by bit, becomes more drawn to the minor side of its character, passing through moments of tender recall and lyrical introspection along the way. The work ends with a full-on reprise of the first movement’s introductory motives, abruptly dismissed with a final flourish.
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49
Felix Mendelssohn was something of an odd figure for his time. He had the musical brilliance of a child prodigy but lacked the tragic back-story and ever-present threat of social marginalization that was thought to dog the ‘real’ Romantic artist. Healthy, wealthy, and happily married, he sailed through his short life the darling of mainstream society (Queen Victoria adored him) in an age in which ‘struggle’ was the watchword of artistic integrity and the guarantor of aesthetic merit. He was Schumann without the delirium, Chopin without the cough, Liszt without the mistresses and unruly hair.
The perfection of his musical craft is well represented by his Piano Trio in D minor of 1839. In this four-movement work we find all the qualities that link him to the style and manner of the 18th century: regularly-shaped phrases, an effortless command of sonata form, and an impeccable sense of decorum in musical expression. But within this exquisitely chiming Mozartean music-box of crystalline structures, unfolding with the breezy assurance of the polished after-dinner speaker, we find as well a love of lyrical, singable melody and a virtuoso’s command of the keyboard that identify him as a charter member of the Romantic movement.
The first movement is marked Molto allegro agitato, the sense of agitation conveyed through pulsing syncopations in the piano as the cello, and then the violin, presents the expansive, slightly anxious opening theme. This texture of evenly paced quarter notes (or longer) in the strings over a burbling of much faster figuration in the piano will dominate the movement as a whole. Both principal themes are songlike in their tunefulness, but the second is especially so. Its symmetrically balanced phrases, rising and falling like a heaving breast, are lovingly crooned by the intertwined voices of the violin and cello.
To make up for the lack of a repeat of the exposition, Mendelssohn, with faultless courtesy, kindly begins the development section with both themes presented again 19 in their entirety before chewing them up in fragments. The recapitulation is notable for the elegant countermelody with which the violin accompanies the cello in its initial go-through of the movement’s first theme.
The following Andante con moto tranquillo is a Mendelssohnian song without words, introduced in the piano in the three-layered texture typical of this genre: a right-hand melody singing out over an accompaniment split between the hands. The theme itself is gentle and warmly intimate, exquisitely evocative of Biedermeyer contentment with a touch of sweet longing. In the contrasting middle section, set in the minor mode, this movement progresses ever so gradually from an 8th-note pulse, to triplet 8ths, and then to 16ths in its exploration of the gentler emotions.
Mendelssohn’s scherzos became the name brand in ‘cute’ musical scamper in 19th-century instrumental music and this trio’s Leggiero e vivace does not disappoint. The use of the high register in the piano adds timbral brilliance to the rhythmic sparkle of the repetitive pattern that pervades the texture throughout, occasionally supplemented by some punchy keyboard muscle. A central episode in the minor mode provides contrast, making up for the lack of a formal trio section.
The finale, Allegro assai appassionato, begins with the piano offering up a deceptively simple chordal statement of small melodic range in a repetitive dactylic (LONG-short-short) pattern. This innocent little mini-march soon gathers momentum, however, when taken over by the strings and supported by a dizzying array of brilliant piano figurations. Two moderately-paced episodes of lyrical reflection intervene to slow the pace, eventually pushing the tonality into the major mode, but fail to blunt the movement’s propulsive energy and the work ends in a blaze of piano octaves and a crescendo of throbbing string tremolos.
Donald G. Gislason 2016