Complete Beethoven Trios, March 26

Piano Trio in G major, Op. 1, No. 2 (1794-95)

The G-major trio, surprisingly, begins with an Adagio introduction—something that was more customary in a symphony than in a chamber work.  The expansive lyricism and dramatic tension packed into this introduction would be enough to energize an entire movement.  Yet it only serves here as a backdrop for the ‟Allegro vivace,” which has many more fascinating innovations in store.  Beethoven’s musical phrases are much longer, his developments more elaborate, his modulations more daring than those of his predecessors.  The serious moments are more serious, and the light moments lighter.  And the long coda at the end of sonata forms, that quintessential Beethovenian specialty, is already used here to stunning effect.  After all the themes have been duly recapitulated and one might think the movement is over, a sudden modulation into a distant key once again calls everything into question.  The home key has to be re-established one more time so the precarious harmonic balance can be restored.

One of Beethoven’s great slow movements follows:  the richness of its melodies and its ornamentation, and the extremely sensitive handling of the three instruments make this E-major ‟Largo con espressione” unforgettable.  The emotional range of the movement includes calm, expressive singing in the opening theme, an ethereal quality in the second, and a dramatic fortissimo outburst soon afterwards that veers the movement away from its expected harmonic course.  All themes are repeated following the dictates of sonata form.  As often happens in slow movements, the development section is omitted, but Beethoven would not forgo the lengthy coda, which introduces surprising some new variations on the movement’s thematic material.

The Scherzo is an early example of a well-known Beethovenian movement type, already fully developed.  The accents on weak beats, the unexpected imitative entries, the quixotic middle section (‟Trio”)—so many of the typical features of a Beethoven scherzo—are all there, as is, for the third time in the piece, the coda to delay the final moment.

The extended finale is based on a galloping theme consisting on repetitions of a single note.  The shape of the melody would suggest a rondo, but Beethoven opted for sonata form here, which allows for greater complexity in motivic development.  The playful movement abounds in harmonic surprises and ends—how else?—with a coda where some of the main theme’s components take on lives of their own.  With a final masterstroke, Beethoven transforms his opening motif into an effective and powerful closing gesture.


Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808)

The trio Op. 70, No. 2 revisits the world of early Beethoven from the height of the middle period.  Written shortly after the Fifth Symphony, it has a gentle lyricism that reminded the first reviewer of the work, the Romantic writer and composer E. T. A. Hoffmann, of the music of Haydn and Mozart.  Hoffmann wrote his review in 1813.  In 2003, American musicologist Lewis Lockwood found much ‟humor and kindness” in the work but also more virtuosity in the string parts than there had been in Beethoven’s earlier trios.  One has to agree:  in this trio, and its companion work, the ‟Ghost” trio (Op. 70, No. 1), the three instruments have become equal in importance.  (The three early trios of Op. 1, by comparison, were to a large extent dominated by the piano.)  The Romantic trio sound of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Dvořák was in fact born in these two masterworks.

Certain telltale elements, such as the rich diversity of the motivic transformations, are typical of Beethoven’s middle years.  The ‟mystery” introduction with which it opens is another such element, and its return at the end of the movement even looks forward, anticipating similar strategies in the late string quartets.  Yet by the time the main portion of the first movement arrives, all ‟turbulence” is over, and the music assumes a lyric flow that is only occasionally interrupted by moments of tension.

The second movement is a set of ‟double” variations on two themes—the first, a graceful melody in the major mode, the second, more tempestuous and in the minor.  The double-variation form was particularly dear to Haydn; in Beethoven’s hands it expands and gains in dramatic momentum.  Most remarkably, the movement ends in the minor, denying the major-mode resolution that was the expected outcome in such ‟bimodal” movements.

The third movement is a minuet that, although not identified as such in the score, nevertheless adheres to the form and style of this classical dance that Beethoven had replaced by the more modern scherzo elsewhere (from Op. 1 onwards!).  The middle section, the would-be ‟trio,” sounds even more archaic with its simple chordal progressions played in turn by the piano and the two string instruments.  On the other hand, the fact that the middle section is heard twice and the main statement three times is a more modern feature, repeating a procedure from his previous work, the Cello Sonata Op. 69 and anticipating the Seventh Symphony (as well as the “Archduke” Trio).

Effusive lyricism and instrumental virtuosity are the two poles around which the fiinale revolves.  The sequence of keys is not what we would find in Haydn and Mozart—the music moves toward more distant tonal goals, yet this no way undermines the classical balance of the movement which, according to Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny, is ‟very quick, light, brilliant, and witty.”


Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97 (“Archduke,” 1811)

The last of the piano trios owes its nickname to the fact that it was one of a large group of works by Beethoven dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph.  The youngest brother of Emperor Franz, Rudolph was Beethoven's composition student and one of his most loyal patrons.  Fittingly, this “imperial” work is most monumental of the six Beethoven trios, and marks the culmination point of Beethoven's so-called “heroic” period.  Yet it is not one of those highly dramatic, conflict-laden works that we most readily associate with Beethoven's middle years:  it is neither appassionata like the F-minor piano sonata, nor overly serioso like the string quartet in the same key.  The predominant mood is serene, peaceful and witty; at the same time it is filled with rhythmic and harmonic passages that were highly unusual and certainly “modern” at the time.

The first movement opens with a broad and expansive melody that, surprisingly, does not reach closure but disintegrates instead into a series of figurations eventually leading to a more playful second theme.  Musicians will notice that this second theme does not appear in the expected F major but in G, a more remote key.  This is a major departure from the rules that were already well established at the time; as a result, the movement spans a wider tonal and emotional arch than usual.  G major, which allows the string instruments to use the clear sound of the open strings, also has a brighter sonority than F major would.

This unusual move is followed by one of Beethoven's most exciting development sections, where the composer isolates a tiny part of the opening theme from the rest and works with it separately.  In a particularly suspenseful passage, the violin and cello play pizzicato (plucking the strings) while the piano keeps repeating a characteristic trill motif.  After a full recapitulation, an energetic coda ends the movement.

The jaunty dance melody of the second-movement Scherzo is introduced by an unaccompanied cello.  The three instruments toss the melody back and forth as if it were a ball in a game.  The middle section, which is in the minor mode and starts with a tonally unstable chromatic melody (that is, one moving in half-steps), is a little more serious, but it, too, soon erupts in a happy dance tune.  Like in a number of mature Beethoven works, the alternation of the principal section (S) and middle section (T) is repeated, resulting in the scheme S-T-S-T-S, plus a brief coda, in which elements of the T section appear for the third time. 

The slow movement is a series of variations on a hymn-like theme.  The tempo marking (“Andante cantabile, ma però con moto”) stresses that the tempo should not be too slow; a certain momentum should be maintained at all times.  In the course of the four variations, ever faster figurations are added to “dress up” the initial theme, which returns in its original, unadorned form at the end.  Then another embellished passage leads directly (attacca, without pause) into the last movement.

Marked “Allegro moderato” like the first movement (that is, not too fast), the finale combines a dance character with a gentle espressivo style of delivery.  It is a cheerful rondo with a central episode in a minor key that, for a moment, strikes a more serious note.  Upon its return, the rondo theme is transformed into a breathtaking Presto passage, slipping into a foreign key (A major) as an unexpected detour.  The home key is, then, triumphantly reestablished in a lengthy and increasingly exuberant coda.

The first public performance of the “Archduke” trio took place at the Viennese hotel “Zum römischen Kaiser” (“Roman Emperor”) on April 11, 1814.  Beethoven himself was at the piano in what remained his final appearance as a performer.  His deafness had reached a stage where appearing on stage was no longer possible for him.

Peter Laki

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