Adagio from Piano Trio in E at Major Op. 148 D 897
Schubert’s Adagio for Piano Trio D 897 was composed in 1827 but only published decades later, under the publisher’s title Notturno. And indeed, the opening section does conjure up images of nighttime serenity, with its heavenly texture of harp-like arpeggios in the piano supporting a hypnotic melody intoned in close harmony by the two stringed instruments. Formally structured A-B-A-B-A, the work alternates this ‘angelic choir’ A-section with an equally repetitive, but much more assertive and glorious B-section, as triumphalist as anything from a Liszt piano concerto. Without straying much beyond the tonic-dominant harmonic vocabulary of the average ABBA chorus, it manages to stir the passions by means of the wide-ranging carpet of piano tone that it lays down in cascades of broken chords. Sounding like a processional anthem for someone wearing a crown, or at least a long cape, it makes you feel like you ought to be standing while listening to it.
The style of this work, of course, is classic Schubert. In the minds of some it represents an exaggerated Romanticism that abuses the patience of its audience. Detractors obsessed with the prolixity of Schubert’s musical thoughts, and their thin motivic content, will no doubt be quick to point out how the work opens by squatting for a whole six bars on the E at chord – clear evidence of compositional “dithering”. (One wonders what they would say of the pages and pages of E at in Wagner’s Rheingold prelude.) And with a little prompting, they will vent their irritation over how Schubert’s melodies never seem to “go anywhere” but just seem to circle around a single pitch.
Schubert aficionados of long standing will, by contrast, ascribe to these same procedures the virtues of ‘heavenly length’ and ‘delicious dreaminess’. Only arguments from personal taste can be dispositive in deciding whether Schubert provides the soul with dessert-quality Viennese cream puffs of exquisite manufacture, or simply empty musical calories.
What both sides can agree on, however, is that given the repetitious quality of the work’s double-dotted rhythms and its multiple incantations of the same melodic fragments, it is the electrifying changes in harmony that provide the principal drama in this work.
Piano Trio in C Major Op. 87
Brahms’ second piano trio is a deeply serious work, thickly scored for piano, and roiling with the rhythmic ambiguities that are a trademark of the composer’s mature compositional style. Begun in 1880 and completed in 1882, the same period that produced the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B at, it treats the piano very much in the style of that ‘symphonic’ concerto, giving the instrument a massively wide field of play extending to both ends of the keyboard, the hands often separated by as much as four or five octaves.
The violin & cello frequently play in unison or in parallel, pooling their sonic resources to provide a stable sonority in the mid-range of the texture, where the important thematic material is most often presented.
The first movement opens with a broad theme laid before the listener by the violin and cello alone, doubled at the octave. Comprised only of bold melodic leaps, it has the air of a fugue subject, or a fanfare. Themes abound in this movement – there are at least four important ones – but sectional divisions in sonata form are hard to de ne, as the music seems to unfold in a continuous flow. It is a ow that is anything but regular on the rhythmic front, however, as cross-rhythms and conflicts between duple and triple motivic groupings keep the texture restless and irregular, reduced in the ear to great swells of sound and counterbalancing ebbs.
The texture is much simplified in the second movement Andante con moto, a theme and five variations on a folk-like theme, flecked with a biting “Scotch snap” in its melody line and a ponderous Volga-boat-song-like throbbing in its accompaniment. Brahms knew well the gypsy violin style from his youthful days touring with the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi (c.1828-1898) and this style of music is alluded to in the double-stops of the strings and parallel sixth patterns in the piano.
It is one of the oddities of this work that the most melt-in-your-mouth Brahmsian lyrical melody comes in the Trio middle section of the Presto scherzo, not the Andante. Nervous and jittery, if this movement sounds a touch Mendelssohnian, it’s Mendelssohn on too much Red Bull.
Can a movement be both jovial and serious? Brahms proves that it can in his congenial, but sombrely animated sonata-ish rondo finale. This a movement that delights in the continuous variation of its themes, balancing its coy playfulness with an impressive heftiness of texture.
British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage is internationally renowned for his orchestral and chamber works, as well as three operas. His compositional style is modernist, rife with sharp percussive accents, but also features outbursts of sustained lyrical emotion. Both popular music and jazz, especially Miles Davis, are important influences on his style.
It is no secret why the music of Turnage resonates so strongly with younger listeners. Breathlessly contemporary, it often alludes to engaging aspects of modern life and popular culture. His opera Anna Nicole catalogues the life of model and television personality Anna Nicole Smith while his string quartet, Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad, references Led Zeppelin.
Duetti d’Amore (Love Duets) is a collection of five miniatures on the subject of modern love, commissioned by Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich and premiered by them in 2015. The work is shrink-wrapped around the instrumental personalities of the two performers, presenting them in musical narrative as the male and female partners of a romantic couple who quarrel, embrace, and make up in an ongoing pattern of stormy interaction.
It features no advanced instrumental techniques and unfolds in an alternation of aggressive and lyrical duets, with Duetto 2 and Duetto 4 being the more sustained and lyrical portraits of this love bond, Duetti 1, 3 and 5 the more fiery aspects of the relationship. Duetto 5, the “Blues” finale, brings their discord, and mutual attraction, strongly into focus.
Piano Trio in A minor
Ravel’s concern for classical form and balanced structure may be summed up in his only-half-joking comment concerning the progress he was making on his Piano Trio in A minor: “I’ve written my trio. Now all I need are the themes.” In this trio Ravel offers us a classically proportioned four-movement work in the traditional format: two sonata-form movements bookending a scherzo and slow movement.
Completed just after the Great War had broken out in August 1914, this work dreams far above the tumult of the conflict. This is understandable as Ravel was far from the front at the time. He was near the Basque town in southern France where he was born, and the imprint of Basque musical culture is strong in this work, most evidently in the rhythmic patterning of the first movement, with its unusual time signature of 8/8. The 8 beats of the bar are divided up 3+2+3 throughout, a pattern common in Basque dance music. The movement has two distinct themes, clearly distinguished in tone, and the texture is shiningly transparent due to the skillful way in which Ravel positions the instruments in sonic space so as not to cover each other.
Ravel’s exalting scherzo second movement has a number of unusual features. Its title, Pantoum, refers to a Malaysian interlocking verse form, popular with many French poets, that Ravel incorporates into the structure of his already- formally-structured A-B-A scherzo & trio. A staccato opening theme alternates with more lyrical phrases, often grouped for the ear with scant regard for the 3/4 time signature. But then something even more irregular happens in the trio: the strings continue on fidgeting in 3/4 while the piano calmly intones a lyrical sequence of cool chords in 4/2, after which the sides switch places, which is to say metres. This movement is the champagne sorbet of the trio as a whole.
The slow movement is a Passacaille, a series of variations based on a wandering eight-bar theme announced deep, deep in the bass that migrates up through the cello to the violin, and then swells to a great climax before receding back to the spare texture with which it began.
Ravel goes full-on orchestral in his finale, a movement which features some tricky challenges for the instrumentalists, starting with the violin’s 4-string arpeggio pattern – all in harmonics – that opens the movement. Other touches of orchestral sound colour are the plush tremolos in the strings that often surround the piano like a fur collar, or the electrifying high trills in the same instruments. Alternating between 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures, this movement drifts in a seemingly timeless world of spontaneous, irregular pulsations that build to an ecstatic finish that sees the last pages blaring out toujours ff, as it says in the score: continuously very loud.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017