My goal in writing such notes is to help provide a scaffold for listening. I try to avoid technical terms like "sonata form," "pentatonic," and "this passage makes me want to set my hair on fire," and focus more on providing just a couple of main things to listen for in each movement, although for some reason I thought I'd also provide a sort of apologia for why piano trios are called "piano trios." (I just chose to sidestep the whole confusing notion of the "trio" section in a scherzo, which of course doesn't literally mean there are three parts, although in piano trios there usually are three parts, though not three pianos...)
But I still end up with a lot of words, so I'll stop writing about the words and just let them speak for themselves. And...if you live in the Boston area and want to come here some of the best music ever written (plus some Beethoven variations), come see me flail.
Consider the social life of the curious species “pianist.” A keyboard player has the advantage of being able to create a fully satisfying texture with just one instrument, but this can also leave pianists making music all by themselves, for better and for worse. When called upon to support singers or instrumental soloists in duo situations, the pianist is often regarded as the servile “accompanist,” sometimes more fairly than others. There is an enormous body of music written for two pianists at one keyboard (which creates an immediate kind of physical intimacy), and there’s also plenty of music written for the less practical pairing of two pianos. But, good luck finding two good ones in one room, and good luck hearing which is which when two pianos are making a racket together.
So it is that the richest repertoire for the socially-minded pianist is found in the strangely named “piano trio” format, which actually involves only one piano. The genre gets its name from the 18th century context in which a leading piano part is enhanced by the “accompaniment” of violin and cello. Although there are also some fantastic piano quartets (just add viola) and piano quintets (throw in a second violin, and prepare to move a lot of living room furniture), there’s something quite practical and satisfying about pitting two string players against one big keyboard. The grouping certainly has intrigued a wide range of composers to write works that transcend the casual living room scene to musical heights as ambitious as that found in full-scale symphonies.
Beethoven: Fourteen Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 44 (1792)
Beethoven was a leader in elevating the piano trio in this way, but the variations opening today’s program are closer to the 18th century spirit of lighthearted musical banter among friends. The simplicity of the perfectly stupid theme is emphasized by having all three performers present it in stubborn unison, as if they’ve been handed a topic for discussion. The conversation that ensues gives everyone a chance to lead and accompany as the theme takes on various characters, mostly of a jovial sort. Beethoven is famous for his masterful control of dramatic pacing, but here we find him more interested in entertaining his guests in a kind of variety show. Hear here.
If Beethoven is playing the role of appetizer today, the trios by Ravel and Brahms are each full course meals on their own; this is a demanding program for performers and audience alike, though it’s hard to imagine two more rewarding works. The French Ravel and the German Brahms summon very different sound worlds from this instrumental combo, but the two trios have much in common as well. Each is a four-movement structure 1) anchored by a relatively lengthy and lyrical first movement with an unforgettable opening theme; 2) followed by a mischievously animated scherzo; 3) countered by a very serious slow movement; and 4) concluded by a fairly manic finale that ends with a bang. Though Brahms’ work is the embodiment of 19th Century Romanticism and Ravel’s has a more 20th Century Modernist style, both composers have a classicist’s devotion to detail that paradoxically enables them to create music that soars passionately and pushes the performers to their limits.
Ravel: Piano Trio in A Minor (1914)
One hears the early 20th century in the occasional wild outbursts of color and sonority in Ravel’s 1914 trio, but in many respects his approach is more old-fashioned, refined and efficient than Brahms’. Each movement is generated by one primary idea that Ravel then explores with his uncannily imaginative ear, coaxing all sorts of otherworldly sounds from these old-world instruments. The music is unfailingly expressive though, and each movement has a fairly clear architecture articulated by vivid climaxes.
The trio begins hypnotically with a melodic/rhythmic idea that immediately conjures up a “long ago and far away” kind of mystery. There are a couple of frenetic climaxes on this theme, each time countered by a more tender melody, but each time the hypnotic idea creeps back in down in the depths of the piano, which is where things finally fade away. Hear here.
The second movement scherzo skitters around with an unceasing kinetic energy. Ideas are fragmented, strange sounds and register leaps abound, and finding the theme can seem like chasing a firefly at times. Even the contrasting middle section features a kind of mashup in which a smoothly flowing new theme (first in piano, later in strings) is played with the dizzying scherzo motives darting around in the background. Again, two enormous climaxes anchor the proceedings, the second leading to a wild crash of an ending. (The unusual title “Pantoum” refers to a kind of poetry in which lines from one stanza are repositioned in succeeding stanzas, an effect re-imagined here in musical terms.) Hear here.
The third movement returns to the somber mood of the first, here dressed in the centuries-old form of a passacaglia, a kind of theme-and-variations structure in which a bass line is the recurring idea. In this case, the beautiful melody indeed begins in (and returns to) the piano’s bass register, but it’s treated more as main tune than bass line for most of the movement’s progression to an impassioned apex and heartrending follow-up. Hear here.
The compact finale begins with glassy, whirring motions in the strings, against which the piano introduces a circular melody with an exotic, East Asian flair. The second part of the tune has a rising trajectory that dominates much of the movement. There are three ecstatic climaxes, the first and last featuring brilliant string trills above massive piano chords. Ravel clearly enjoys pushing the ensemble to its limits, flying close enough to the sun to achieve incandescent results. Hopefully, no one gets singed. Hear here.
Brahms: Piano Trio in B Major, Op. 8 (1854/1889)
Brahms’ writing for these instruments has fewer sharp edges than Ravel’s, though he still loves to indulge in richly layered sonorities. His Trio in B Major is an early work which he revised significantly late in his career, so it draws both on youthful exuberance and years of experience crafting large-scale musical narratives. It’s likely a youthful indulgence in letting many ideas develop at length that results in such an expansive canvas (it’s long!), but you can tell the composer loves these ideas, and the music is inspired from end to end.
The opening of the first movement is a perfect example of how Brahms is willing to take his time letting things unfold. A sublimely perfect melody is introduced by piano and then taken up for an extended period by the cello (no cellist can resist this piece) before the violin finally joins in to continue a long exploration of the main tune. The rest of the movement alternates between this kind of lyrical outpouring and more dramatic interchanges. The return of the opening material is beautifully handled, subtle enough that one hardly knows when the return started, and though tensions remain, the movement is finally brought to a close by a lullaby-like reminiscence of the main theme, alternating between cello and violin. Hear here.
The second movement is both playful and neurotic, with a simple elfin theme passed around nervously, occasionally exploding violently. A contrasting middle section is more relaxed, with a switch from minor to major and a lovely, lilting melody that builds triumphantly. Hear here.
In the next to last movement of our afternoon, time might seem to come to a stop as Brahms dares to experiment with stillness. In some ways, this music is the most challenging for performers and audience, but if one is willing to surrender to a dream state and suspend the desire for suspense, the effect is magical and celestial. A gentle rocking motion introduces a more troubled midsection, but the glacially spaced piano chords of the opening return to usher us back to rest. Hear here.
As with the first and second movements, the cello (often given the least interesting role in early piano trio repertoire) takes the lead in starting the finale, which begins restlessly, as if in midstream. It’s quite rare for a work with a big major key first movement to end in a minor key, but Brahms is not interested in recapturing the big-hearted lyricism of the opening. There is a rollicking second theme that seems to suggest something more optimistic, but a series of violent eruptions are always around the corner, culminating in a stormy final flourish. Hear here.