Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major K 502
The piano trio developed out of the ‘accompanied’ keyboard sonata, a makeshift compositional genre that attempted to compensate for the weak ‘tinkly’ tone of the early fortepiano (forerunner of the modern pianoforte) by the addition of a violin to reinforce the singing line in the right hand, and a cello to reinforce the bass in the left. In the 1780s, after technical advances in instrument manufacture gave the piano a louder and more penetrating tone, Mozart made concertos for piano and orchestra the centrepiece of his public performances in Vienna.
This new prominence of the piano as a solo instrument also affected the kinds of music written for private performance in the home. The five trios for piano, violin and cello that Mozart composed between 1786 and 1788 are all, like the concertos, three-movement works in which the piano plays the leading role. The first of these, the Piano Trio in B flat K 502, is particularly concerto-like in the flamboyance of its keyboard writing. But it also demonstrates the new independence that could be granted to the violin and cello once their ‘accompanying’ role was made obsolete.
The opening Allegro is marked by an extreme economy of means. Virtually the entire movement derives from the opening dialogue between the piano and the stringed instruments, predicated on the contrast between a nonchalant grouping of appoggiaturas in the piano and a sparkling ‘ear-tickle’ figure that chirps in reply from the violin. This opening theme also serves, unusually, as the movement’s second theme, scored differently and presented in a higher register. With such a concentration of musical materials in the exposition, it is not surprising that Mozart introduces a completely new theme at the beginning of the development section.
Among the concerto-like features of this movement are passages of ‘busy-work’ in the piano covered by more sustained melodic activity in the strings, and extended stretches of pearly piano runs leading either to a new formal section, or to a trilling cadence.
The second movement Larghetto is a lyrical outpouring of highly decorated melody, structured as a dialogue between piano and violin, with the cello largely playing a supporting role. A contrast to this florid melody is found in the much less artful middle section which, while departing from the same initial gesture, offers up a more naively simple brand of tunefulness.
The Allegretto finale is a companionable, gently playful rondo constantly enlivened by the same sprightly ‘ear-tickle’ figure that appeared in the first movement. The mood is consistently upbeat, with the piano at particular pains to make the texture sparkle with colourful passagework. Eventually even the cello feels emboldened enough to join in on the fun as it trades phrases back and forth with the violin in the closing section of the score.
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67
Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944). Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.
Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.
Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with left hand high in the treble and the right hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. An almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.
The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.
The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly – or playfully, it’s hard to tell which – over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Op. 63
There is a distinctly ‘Brahmsian’ feel about Schumann’s first piano trio, with its thick, almost orchestral scoring, richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. Composed in 1847, its densely woven compositional textures reflect Schumann’s recent study of Bach but its expressive manner is Romantic to the hilt.
At its opening we are plunged into a brooding drama already fully underway, a churning cauldron of sinuous yearning phrases, echoing back and forth in imitation, that seem to never end. The urgency and passionate intensity of this opening rides on the back of a continuous series of delayed resolutions and syncopations that weaken the strong beats of the bar. This is a feature shared by both the first and second themes of the movement. The development section is notable for a remarkable change in mood, a sudden break in the clouds signalled by a chiming accompaniment in the piano that introduces a completely new theme, a sort of hymn melody hauntingly intoned by the cello and violin playing near the bridge.
The 2nd movement scherzo has a spirit of boundless energy and focused enthusiasm that would do credit to the cheering fanbase of a local football team. Built on a series of driving scale figures echoing between the piano and strings in a peppy dotted rhythm, it smoothes out these scale figures in the more flowing central trio section, which is structured as a series of three-part canons.
The dramatic centre of gravity of this work is its slow movement, a lyrical outpouring of emotion with the violin and cello as its major protagonists while the piano digs deep into its low register to provide a rich bed of sonic support from below. The emotional range of this movement is exceptionally wide. The opening and closing sections are filled with forlorn sighs and seemingly aimless harmonic wanderings, but they enclose a rapturous middle section filled with expansive feelings of contentment and inner joy.
The last movement follows the model of the “triumphant finale” established by Beethoven with his Fifth Symphony, in which the minor mode changes to major and whatever dark clouds may have hovered over previous movements are swept away in a flood of joyous celebration. The tune chosen by Schumann for this celebration is stitched together from motives from the opening of the first movement and almost has the character of a patriotic hymn. But unlike the theme at the opening of the first movement, this finale theme just can’t wait to cadence – as often as possible – and the rhythmic pulse is definite and emphatic. A rondo-like alternation of moods cleverly disguises how the opening theme motivates the entire kaleidoscopic range of variations that drive this euphoric movement to its jubilant conclusion.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019