Franz Joseph Haydn : Piano Trio in E flat Major
Dmitri Shostakovich : Trio in E minor, Op. 67
Anton Arensky : Trio No. 1, Op. 32
BEFORE THE CONCERT
Learn about this concert’s composers and their works. Gain deeper insights into the music with Kai Christiansen, noted San Francisco musicologist and founder of earsense.org an online chamber music exploratorium.
Lecture starts at 6:45 PM in the Sunset Center concert hall, and is free-of-charge.
Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Trio in E-flat Major, Hob. XV:29 (c. 1795–1797)
Haydn is well known for his monumental achievements with the symphony and the string quartet; in these genres, he produced a combined total of works numbering around one hundred and forty-two. But Haydn was prodigious in at least two other genres at the heart of the classical tradition- the keyboard sonata and the keyboard trio, both transitioning from the harpsichord to the piano during the course of his career. Haydn composed something like fifty keyboard sonatas and another forty or so keyboard trios, of which over thirty have been authenticated. The final ten “late” trios, written between 1794 and 1797, were specifically intended for the piano rather than the harpsichord. They are known as the “London Trios” since Haydn wrote them primarily during his second, marvelously successful trip to England following his retirement from service to the Hungarian Esterházys. Every one of the final trios is considered a masterpiece and a founding example in yet another nascent genre in which Haydn exercised his supreme gift for sonata forms. Pianist and brilliant scholar Charles Rosen had this to say: “Haydn’s imagination is particularly luxuriant in these trios. Unconstrained by considerations of public effect as in the symphonies or by impressive refinements of style as in the quartets, Haydn wrote them for the sheer pleasure of the solo instrumentalists.”
Haydn’s Trio in E-Flat was published in 1797, one in a set of three dedicated to Theresa Bartolozzi (née Jansen), a London friend and an accomplished pianist. Scholars believe that it was likely composed around 1795, several years after Mozart’s final piano trio and around the same time that a young Beethoven was finishing his own first set of piano trios.
The trio begins with an introductory chord like a call to attention, then a four-note motif that saturates the entire movement. Much of the musical narrative involves the presence or absence of this motif as well as its numerous permutations, each with a different character. Simple, tuneful, and sweet, the slow movement bears the rare and revealing character marking “innocentemente.” Despite its apparent “innocence,” the music features some soul-searching as it seems to reach for more lofty utterances, including some surprising modulations. This brief interlude stops mid-sentence and hangs briefly in silence until the finale bursts upon the scene, answering the ponderous with a party! A swift, whirling three-count German dance concludes the trio with high spirits. It is in sonata form, which is just to say that you will hear the dance twice, followed by a period of disruption and searching (the so-called “development”) whose somewhat tense, unresolved fragmentation prepares for a super-satisfying return of the dance, significantly extended and enhanced, for a brilliant finish.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, op. 67 (1944)
Despite his prodigious cycle of 15 string quartets, Shostakovich wrote sparingly for other chamber music ensembles: a cello sonata, a violin sonata, a piano quintet, and two piano trios. His first piano trio was a single-movement composition from 1923, written when Shostakovich was only 17. A student work, it is far out shadowed by the mature Second Piano Trio, a substantial four-movement work offering the full range of Shostakovich’s artistry and emotional intensity, particularly as expressed so intimately in his “private” chamber music. In a kind of tradition following Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Arensky, Shostakovich created an elegiac trio in memory of his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, a brilliant musicologist and critic who died suddenly of a heart attack while still a relatively young man. Written in the summer of 1944 in the midst of WWII, the trio, like many of Shostakovich’s works, seems to comment more broadly on the tenor of the times, suggesting an elegy for the tragic victims of war in general.
The trio begins very quietly in eerie high harmonics as a solo cello introduces a meditative subject in its highest range that grows, when joined by violin and piano, into a weighty fugue, a prominent feature of other Shostakovich chamber works, including the Eighth Quartet and the Piano Quintet. As in all three works, the fugue is deeply tinged with melancholy. Portions of the fugue subject transform into new thematic materials across this movement of generally escalating motion and dynamics.
The brisk and spiky scherzo is unmistakably Shostakovich. It constantly teeters on the edge between lively and frantic, between rolling scales and harsh, repetitive rhythmic motifs, like a jovial folk dance where escalating mirth swerves dizzily toward obsessive mania. The virtuosity seems to boil and effervesce into pizzicato bubbles as a brilliant string duo trades figure and ground with the piano.
The slow third movement is a deeply felt lament, a passionate funeral dirge that grows out of an initial stark chord progression from the piano, laid like a grave stone, which serves as a ground bass in a chaconne form. The finale breaks the grief with a compelling musical narrative featuring a march, piquant folk dancing, and a poignant, weeping recall of the fugal subject from the first movement as the music becomes a literal manifestation of elegiac recall, a rushing memory of what has past and gone. Composer and critic Arthur Cohn notes in his typically terse but sharply perceptive style that here Shostakovich pictures “the horrible forced dance of Jews before they were machine-gunned to death.” Whether the loss of a close friend or of a whole nation in the midst of a world war, tragedy had a deep impact on Shostakovich: prefigured in the first movement, the sharply etched finale theme resurfaces yet again in the monumental personal testimony of the Eighth Quartet.
Anton Arensky (1861–1906)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, op. 32 (1894)
Anton Arensky was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor of the late Romantic period who, for context, was a generation younger than Tchaikovsky and a generation older than Stravinsky. A child of musical parents, he attended the St. Petersburg conservatory, studying under Rimsky-Korsakov, among others. He then became a professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow conservatory, where his own students included Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. In Moscow, Arensky befriended Tchaikovsky, who would exert a noticeable influence on his style. A subsequent appointment at the Imperial Chapel resulted in pension that gave Arensky the freedom to pursue composing and a successful touring career as both pianist and conductor. Apparently burdened by an addiction to alcohol and gambling, Arensky died of dissolution at the relatively young age of 44. His musical legacy chiefly comprises at least one successful opera, two symphonies, two concerti, choral and piano works, and an admirable cache of chamber music. One occasionally hears his fine String Quartet No. 2 with two cellos, but his unquestionable “greatest hit” is the popular Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor.
It was Arensky’s mentor Tchaikovsky who established an influential tradition of Russian elegies for piano trio with his monumental trio of 1882, dedicated to the celebrated pianist and co-founder of the Moscow Conservatory Nikolai Rubinstein. Upon the death of Tchaikovsky, a decade later, a young student named Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his second Trio élégiaque in his honor. The following year, Arensky composed his trio to the (belated) memory of the celebrated Russian cellist Karl Davidoff, who died in 1889. One might also look as far forward as 1944, when Shostakovich dedicated his Second Piano Trio to the Russian musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky. Each of these trios is strongly marked by the presence of a dark elegy: sorrowful and even funereal music in honor of the dead.
The romantic character and technique of Arensky’s trio suggests the influence of Schumann and especially Mendelssohn, whose trio in D minor immediately comes to mind. As with Mendelssohn, Arensky’s first movement features finely articulated lyrical themes; an intricate, full texture; and a steady, flowing momentum. The cello introduces nearly every theme throughout the entire trio in what would appear to be a direct tribute to Davidoff. Despite its “softening” from its initial minor key into the relative major, the first movement ends in definite sorrow as the first theme’s main motif rises in a chaste, plaintive premonition of the third-movement elegy to come. Far from the French menuet or even a muscular scherzo alla Beethoven, the second movement is a waltz, glittering with elegance, theatrical poise, and, in the trio, genial and melodious warmth. To begin, a delicate, almost whimsical gesture from the violin is answered by a torrent of notes from the piano, a wonderfully theatrical call and response. Pizzicato, unresolved arabesques, and the sparkling high register of the piano create a charmed, atmospheric introduction, promising great expectations until, finally, the cello begins the dance, soon engaging its violin partner.
The stunning third movement, Elegia, is the heart and soul of the trio, its raison d’être. The piano intones the grave, iconic rhythm of the funeral march as a muted cello sings its sorrowful first theme. Both violin and cello are muted, giving the music a hushed, almost unspeakable poignancy, like grief stuck in one’s throat. But equally characteristic of most musical elegies is a second theme, bright, hopeful, and nostalgic, as a memory of happier times. Gentle, spacious and with ever upward-reaching modulations, the music is itself uplifting, culminating in the soaring heights of the violin. This is a particularly magical movement of the trio that will recur again, briefly, in the finale. A more tumultuous character, again suggesting Schumann or even Brahms, pervades the finale with a stormy bravado in the form of a rondo refrain, juxtaposed with contrasting episodes that literally and figuratively operate as memories. One is a recollection of the Elegia, the luminous “nostalgia” theme, whose rising modulations are ultimately grounded by a recollection of the original first-movement theme, familiar but weary with sadness and suddenly swept away forever by a final gust of fate.