David Piano Trio Concert Report
Review of the concert by Joan Champie, followed by the program notes:
The David Trio appeared on Sunday evening, October 23, for the second program of the Chamber Music of Yellow Springs concert series. Composed of piano, violin, and cello, the David Trio made its debut in 2004 with a prize-winning performance. Since then it has appeared in venues throughout Europe and the Americas, and has made recordings for the Stradivarius label. Members of the Trio are Claudio Trovajoli, piano; Andrej Bialow, violin; and David Cohen, cello.
The concert opened with Notturno in E flat Major, Op. 140 (D897) by Schubert. Written in the last years of his short life, the Notturno is a jewel of grace, melody, and delicacy. It began with gentle, arpeggiated chords for the piano, soon joined by the violin and cello playing a song-like duet. This reversed to the strings playing arpeggios while the piano carried the melody. Delightful Schubertian phrases maintained the quiet, meditative peace with only a brief martial section. To this listener, there were moments when the tonal strength of the piano seemed to exceed the string sounds.
Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op, 32, followed the Schubert with a complete change of affect. Written 100 years later than the Notturno, the composition had a forceful, dissonant style. Initial solemn minor passages for piano evolved into a thunderous cascade of all the instruments. Intricate parts requiring technical proficiency were well played and formed the impression of active aggression. Intervals of lyrical playing by the violin and cello were a welcome respite to the exuberant energy of the composition. All three instruments produced a greater range of dynamics than had been required by the Notturno. The second movement of the Arensky was a scherzo expressing lighthearted whimsy, and the unexpected playfulness was accentuated by pizzicatos in the violin and cello. The ensemble’s interactions were crisp and sensitive, and at all times they were united in a single conception of the piece. However, at times the balance suffered when the piano, with its enormous capacity for sound, eclipsed the violin and cello tones. A piano, by its very nature, creates a potential for imbalance, which should be monitored at all times. The final movement started fortissimo with all three instruments playing forcefully. Later there were lyrical passages and rich tones until the almost violent conclusion of the work.
The Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 by Tchaikovsky concluded the program. Although Tchaikovsky had been reluctant to compose a piano trio, having said that “the timbre of the instruments will not blend,” he eventually completed the score for this work. It has become an acclaimed favorite. There are only two movements, each one essentially a theme and variations. This again was assertive music, with all the instruments united in forceful playing. Violin and cello played with radiant lyricism in the four-note yearning theme, and the group played with great expression and dynamic contrasts. The piano was precise and elegant, showing a dazzling technique and crystalline clarity. Balance again was weighted on the piano, despite valiant efforts by the violin and cello. Particularly notable was a long unison passage for the strings, played with excellent intonation and lovely tone quality. The second movement was described as Allegro risoluto e fuoco, which aptly described the energy and unrelenting forcefulness expressed by the players. Surprisingly, the movement ended with a solemn and mournful melody, rhythmically fading into silence.
The enthusiastic audience was rewarded with an encore: a brief and mischievous scherzo by Beethoven….a delightful way to end the evening.
Dennis Loranger, who wrote the program notes, also provided the pre-concert lecture.
submitted by Joan Champie
Franz Schubert, Notturno in E-flat
Franz Schubert is surely best remembered for his songs and song cycles. Any lovers of nineteenth century music will be familiar with the thrilling introduction to his Erlking, and that song’s masterful depiction of the terrified boy, the clueless father, and insatiable specter that stalks them. And just as memorable is his song cycle, The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter: how the cheerful, folk-songlike introduction leads to the singer’s broken heart at the cycle’s conclusion.
Many feel that Schubert’s chamber music, while not as famous as his songs, is as moving, as powerful, and as significant as his vocal music. Chamber music was certainly an important part of his development as a composer. He first began studying music as a violinist, and would perform string quartets and other chamber music with his family. He was so taken with this genre that by his late teens he had put in the effort to compose seven string quartets, works not necessarily of professional caliber, but nevertheless important apprentice work. And, although he spent most of the 1810s writing songs, he returned to chamber music in the 1820s, composing such lauded works as his Quartet in D minor—so called “Death and the Maiden” after his song that provides the theme of the second movement—and his String Quintet in C Major, generally considered one of the finest works in the chamber music repertory.
The Notturno may be not be as familiar to audiences as those other works, but it is a fascinating moment in Schubert’s compositional career and an attractive work in its own right. Scholars believe Schubert began working on the Notturno in 1827 during the time when he was working on his two Piano Trios. He may have been inspired to write for this ensemble for social reasons; he had become close friends with three musicians who happened to play respectively piano, violin, and cello. And Schubert may have originally intended the Notturno to serve as the slow movement of one of those Piano Trios; since he cast the piece in E-flat he could have reasonably fit it into either. But the Notturno seems to have gotten away from Schubert, to have grown so large that it could not fit comfortably into the already substantial expanse of either the Trios it was intended for. Left in manuscript, the work was published posthumously in 1845, its original title “Adagio” replaced by the publisher with the more evocative “Notturno.”
But, while the Notturno is large, it is not slovenly. Indeed it has a perfectly transparent form. The opening of the work features the piano strumming some lovely chords that accompany a beautiful song-like duet between the violin and cello, who in turn then accompany the piano’s version of that same theme.
The next section opens with a strident, march-like duet between the strings, while the piano accompanies them with a flurry of arpeggios. The section gradually fades back in volume, with the violin and cello trading off that section’s motive, and then leading back into another statement of the opening theme.
The fourth section repeats the march theme, while the fifth section repeats the opening theme, the piano now accompanying the tune with ornamented figures, and that theme slowly fades away into a timeless atmosphere that recalls the placid stasis of the opening.
Anton Stepanovich Arensky, Piano Trio No. 1, Op.32
Anton Arensky’s life was all too short. He was born in Novgorod, Russia, in 1861 to a musical family. He shone early on: the Russian composer and teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was so confident of the younger composer’s musical skills that he enlisted the twenty-year old Arensky’s help in the preparation of scores and performances. After Arensky graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory he was immediately recruited by the Moscow Conservatory to teach harmony and counterpoint. While professing these disciplines he also wrote numerous original works including the very successful opera, A Dream on the Volga. Unfortunately, Arensky suffered from dual addictions to gambling and alcohol, and after a bout of tuberculosis in 1906 he died, not yet 45 years of age.
The Piano Trio no.1 in D minor is one of Arensky’s most famous works, and is generally considered one of his most successful longer pieces. The first movement is written in a relatively straightforward sonata-allegro form, with an opening theme that surges quietly over the undulating piano accompaniment, and a second theme that evokes a lyrical operatic duet. The development shows off Arensky’s considerable compositional invention.
The second movement is a scherzo, whose whimsical and light-hearted emotional effect provides a startling contrast to the somber third movement, an elegy to the Russian cellist Karl Davïdov. Davïdov had been a mentor to Arensky while the young musician was studying in St. Petersburg, and Arensky seems to have poured his heart out in the composition of this movement. The fourth movement serves as a dramatic summary of the whole work, and refers back to themes from the first and third movements.
Listeners might be interested to learn that there is a recording of the Trio featuring Arensky on the piano part, performing with Jan Hrimaly, violinist, and Anatoly Brandukov, cellist. The sound quality of this recording is sketchy at best, but through the racket of the medium we can hear Arensky and his colleagues playing the work at surprisingly fast tempos, tempos that stop being surprising and become simply incongruous in the elegiac third movement. Whether that tempo comes from the limits of the medium or from Arensky’s own wishes is impossible to know, but the recording provides a tantalizing glimpse into performance practices at the turn of the last century.
Although Arensky had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, the older master’s influence might not be apparent in the D minor Piano Trio. In fact Arensky’s piece sounds more like the work of another Russian master, a fact that did not escape Rimsky-Korsakov’s attention. After Arensky’s death, the older composer provided a pocket biography of the younger man’s work and life, and concluded by saying, “In his youth Arensky had not escaped entirely my own influence; later he fell under that of Tchaikovsky. He will soon be forgotten.”
Well, every composer’s crystal ball has a cloudy spot, especially when it is directed towards that composer’s own influence, and certainly Arensky’s reputation is not out-sized in our own time. Nevertheless, we can be thankful this lovely work escaped Rimsky-Korsakov’s baleful gaze and came down to us as an elegiac memorial for both the original dedicatee and its own, dead-too-soon composer, Anton Arensky.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Piano Trio in A minor
Tchaikovsky was a lucky man in his friends and patrons. Perhaps one of the most important of these friends was the pianist and composer Nikolai Rubinstein. After Tchaikovsky graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1865, Rubinstein secured a position for the young composer at the newly opened Moscow Conservatory, and provided him with lodgings. Not content to serve as employment agent and landlord, Rubinstein also put him in contact with the publisher Pyotr Jürgenson, and with Nikolay Kashkin, a newspaper critic who published favorable articles on Tchaikovsky’s compositions. And finally, Rubinstein also provided entrée to Moscow society; within a few months of his arrival in the metropolis, Tchaikovsky was a man about town.
Despite all these benefits Tchaikovsky was not completely appreciative of Rubinstein’s efforts on his behalf, nor was his career untroubled. Though he was securely housed in Rubinstein’s house, he was not well-to-do, and he had a fraught relationship with his students, who were unappreciative of his often demanding pedagogy. Worst of all, though his compositions were gaining him some attention, real success seemed to elude him. Finally, Rubinstein, whatever the generosity of his spirit, had a foul temper, and often visited his protégé with towering fits of rage.
Despite the complicated nature of their relationship, they remained close, and Tchaikovsky dedicated several works to him, including the Piano Trio in A minor. One of the most important of these works was his Second Piano Concerto, written in 1879. Besides the dedication, the concerto is significant because of the orchestration of the andante movement in which Tchaikovsky uses a concertino group of piano, violin, and cello. When Rubinstein died in 1881, Tchaikovsky apparently felt that ensemble would serve as a fitting group for a memorial for his friend.
Tchaikovsky, however, was a neurotic man, and could do nothing without considerable dithering. In 1880, when his patron Nadezhda von Meck asked him to write a piano trio he quickly demurred:
You ask why I have never written a trio. Forgive me, dear friend; I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me … I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend … it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings.
Despite this avowed antipathy for the genre, and perhaps under the influence of Rubinstein’s death, Tchaikovsky soon decided that he could after all write something for piano trio. In letters to von Meck, he suggested that he was “experimenting” with the ensemble. By January of 1882, he had completed the score. At that time he wrote again to von Meck:
I can say with some conviction that my work is not all bad…but I fear I may have arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for the instruments.
History has come to the conclusion that the work is indeed “not all bad,” and is actually a startlingly original work. It consists of two movements. The first is in sonata allegro form, while the second is an extensive set of variations on a hymn-like, memorable little tune. The variations are written in a variety of styles: a waltz, a fugue, a mazurka, a sweet little tune in the penultimate variation.
The last variation opens with a vigorous dance, featuring brilliant scale passages in all the instruments. But the party soon comes to an end, the music grows more soulful and dramatic, and then concludes with whisper.
–Dennis Loranger, Lecturer in Music, Wright State University.