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October 29, 2015

Best String Trios

The string trio which like the string quartet grew out of the Baroque trio sonata by dropping the harpsichord, was one of the most popular media of the divertimento as entertainment music in the middle of the 18th c., initially often scored for two violins and cello, but later for violin, viola and cello. In his early period (until about 1765) Haydn wrote more than thirty works for string trio, with one exception all in the instrumentation with two violins. In Italy, Boccherini wrote his first string trios in 1761, for the same combination. He would later also write for the combination with viola, and his oeuvre includes about the same number of string trios as Haydn's. While in Haydn's trios the thematic writing is shared between the two violins and the bass just accompanies, Boccherini liberated the cello and gave it also soloistic capacities.

The early string trios were pure entertainment music, and popular among composers as Dittersdorf, Wagenseil, Albrechtsberger, Reichardt, Pichl and Pleyel, but Mozart wrote the first "serious" string trio in 1788 (although still called "divertimento"). In this work Mozart revealed the true potentiality of the form - of course in the combination with viola, as adding a middle voice gave more color to the trio. Not only does the work sound pure and complete, its textures are also full and wide-ranging (even without the second violin that would be added in a string quartet), and its character is full of nobility and grandeur.

The string trio is a difficult and exacting genre. After all, the backbone of the classical style is four-part harmony, which is why the string quartet became the chamber-music medium of choice. To create a similar balance and fullness of sound with only three instruments was a special challenge, which every composer had to meet in his own way. Because the string trio can sound a bit thin, also for listeners it can sometimes be an acquired taste. I think it is one of the most pure forms of chamber music.

The string trio was popular in the Classical period, from Haydn to the early Beethoven, who wrote five (early) works in this genre. It fell out of favor in the Romantic period - there are very few string trios in the 19th c., probably because the Romantic imagination needed larger forces. In contrast to other forms of chamber music, we have no string trios by Mendelssohn, Schumann, or Brahms. But the string trio made a strong comeback in the 20th c., among other reasons thanks to the neo-Classical trend of that period. The greatest string trios of all time are in the general opinion those by Mozart and Schoenberg (and I would add Schnittke).

Here is my list of best string trios (as usual in historical order):

1. Karl Dittersdorf, Divertimento for Violin, Viola and Cello in D (mid 1770s)
Vienna-born Karl Dittersdorf (1739-1799) spent the first half of his life as a touring violin virtuoso, and the second half as composer and music director at various aristocratic courts. He is one of the main representatives of the Vienna Classical era, and knew Haydn and Mozart personally; hearing their compositions greatly changed his own, initially Italianate style. His string trio, called "divertimento" as was then often the case, is in three movements and demonstrates effortless mastery of the form. The violin part is of impressive virtuosity. The Allegro is characterized by uncomplicated sprightliness. The Minuet trio stylizes the popular Ländler as a courtly dance. The Rondo features some unusual syncopations that lead to sparkling virtuosity. A trio full of lighthearted excitement and a good example of the numerous trios written in the 18th c. as entertainment music.
Recording listened to: Wiener Streichtrio on Calig (with trios by Possinger, Pleyel and Hummel).

[Evening gathering with the Spanish Infante and his wife,
the sort of occasion for which Boccherini wrote the present trio;
painting by Goya]

2. Luigi Boccherini, Trio Op 34 No 2 in G Major (G102) for 2 violins and cello (1781)
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) was born in Lucca, in Tuscany. He studied in Rome and afterwards gave concerts as virtuoso cellist in northern Italy, Vienna (3 long visits - he was temporary cellist in the court orchestra) and Paris, before settling down in Spain from 1768 on. His first compositions - strings trios and string quartets - were published in 1861. In Paris, he made lasting contacts with music publishers and from then on, his music would normally be published in Paris. In 1868 Boccherini gave up a plan to go to London, and instead at the invitation of the Spanish Ambassador in France, traveled to Madrid with his colleague Sammartini. Boccherini would stay in this city until his death in 1805. In Madrid, it still took almost ten years of freelancing before Boccherini received royal patronage (in 1778) and was employed by the Infante Luis Antonio, the younger brother of King Charles III. After the death of the Infante in 1785, Boccherini received the sponsorship of the Prussian King Frederick William II (an avid cellist), who gave him an annual salary in compensation for which he had to periodically compose chamber music for the king. This agreement lasted until the death of the king in 1797. Boccherini was one of the greatest innovators and experimenters in 18th c. music. He wrote about 30 string trios, both for the traditional combination of two violins and cello, and the more modern one of violin, viola and cello. One of his last trios (later in life, Boccherini would concentrate on the string quintet) is Op. 34/2, written in 1781, a period in which Boccherini had had to leave Madrid and accompany the Infante, who had lost royal favor due to his marriage to a commoner, into a sort of genteel internal exile in Arenas de San Pedro (140 kilometers west of Madrid). The trio, with two violins, was written for the familial evening gatherings of the Infante in Las Arenas. It opens with an Allegretto comodo assai of enchanting peacefulness, like true night music. This is followed by a Minuet in which the cello plays a special role (of course played by Boccherini himself). Next comes a dreamy Adagio and finally a virtuoso Rondo abounding in references to rhythms of Spain. This refined trio has a wonderful grandeur that far exceeds the means at hand of only three instruments.
Recording listened to: La Real Camara on Glossa Music (with other trios by Boccherini).

3. Mozart, Divertimento for String Trio in E Flat K.563 (1788)
Mozart's E flat Divertimento K.563 is arguably the greatest work ever composed for string trio. At the peak of his powers (that summer Mozart also wrote his three final symphonies), but beset by money problems, Mozart composed it for his friend, fellow-mason and creditor Johann Michael Puchberg. While labelled "Divertimento," this masterful six-movement work (with two slow movements and two minuets between the fast outer movements) is one of Mozart's greatest works and far from "just" entertainment. The first movement opens in an understated way, with the three instruments playing a simple descending triad in unison, sotto voce. Written in sonata form, this is a most sonorous and masterful example of chamber music. The beautiful and lyrical Adagio is in contrast based on an ascending triad, unfolding across a wide melodic range. The rest of the trio is somewhat lighter in tone. The third movement, a lively Minuet is in the style of a Ländler, an Austrian peasant dance. Next follows a song-like Andante, a set of variations on a simple, folk-like theme. As the variations progress, Mozart removes himself further and further from the original theme. The fifth movement is another Minuet, simpler in tone than the first one, but this time paired with two trios. The last movement is a Rondo, marked Allegro; its ingratiating theme is closely related to Mozart's song “Komm, lieber Mai” as well as to the last movement of the Piano Concerto K.595 (Mozart's last piano concerto). The trio ends with hornlike fanfares. The trio was probably first performed in the house of Puchberg, with Mozart himself playing the viola.
Recording listened to: Gidon Kremer, violin, Kim Kashkashian, viola and Yo-yo Ma, cello, on CBS Masterworks (now Sony Classical).


4. Paul Wranitzky, String Trio in G Op 3 No 3 (1794-95)
Moravia-born Paul Wranitzky (1756-1808; also spelled Vranicky) was an exact contemporary of Mozart. He studied with Haydn and was a leading figure in the musical life of Vienna. Himself a violinist, he composed theater music, symphonies (45 in all) and a large body of chamber music, such as 40 string quartets, 18 string quintets and 30 string trios. His music was well-regarded in his day. He wrote in the period style on which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven based their individuality. The Trio Op 3 No 3 is in four movements. An unexpected element in this trio is that the opening theme of the first movement is given to the viola instead of the violin; the poignant Adagio almost sounds like a movement from a cello concerto and also contains opera-like melodies. This is very fresh msuic which I include because Wranitzky deserves to be better known. For his brother Anton Wranitzky, also a composer, see my post on Best String Quintets.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Cordia on Brilliant Classics (with String Trios Op 17 No 2 and Op 3 No 1; first recordings).

5. Ludwig van Beethoven, Serenade (String Trio) in D Major Op. 8 (1796-97)
Beethoven wrote 5 string trios between 1792 and 1798, all before he was 28 years of age. The first one, Op. 3, was qua form consciously modeled on the Mozart Divertimento discussed above, as if Beethoven was studying Mozart's composition. The last three form a set under Op. 9 and are difficult to play, serious works, that display a high concentration of stylistic features typical for Beethoven at this stage of his development. The delightful Serenade Op. 8, however, is my favorite, a bright and confident work. There are no less than seven movements and Beethoven himself must have thought highly of it, for he not only had it published soon after its completion, he also authorized an arrangement for violin and piano by his friend the composer and publisher Hoffmeister. The work belongs in spirit to the great 18th c. serenade tradition and begins (and ends) as works of that genre often did, with a march. The second movement is a deeply restful Adagio; the first Minuet has nice pizzicati effects. The fourth movement is more substantial, an Adagio of somber brooding, starting with a duet between violin and viola, which is twice interrupted by a Scherzo (one of Beethoven's innovations, already in his Piano Trios Op. 1). Also the fifth movement is characteristic, a spirited and lively Allegretto alla Polacca, one of the few real polonaises to be written before the time of Chopin. The next Andante quasi allegretto features a theme and six variations, a movement in which all instruments, including the viola (the string instrument of choice for Beethoven, just like Mozart and Haydn), show off their possibilities. The Marcia then returns to conclude the serenade.
Recording listened to: L'Archibudelli (Vera Beths, Jurgen Kussmaul and Anner Bylsma) on Sony Classical (with String Trio Op. 3).

6. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Grand Trio in E Flat Major No. 3 (1799)
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was born in Pressburg (Bratislava) and received his musical training in the first place from Mozart, but also from Albrechtsberger, Dussek and Haydn. He was the last representative of the Viennese Classical School, and the link to the new Romantic period. Hummel's string trio is in the "heroic" key of E Flat Major and is in four movements. The first movement Allegro con brio seems to pay tribute to Haydn. It starts with a formal short introduction, a sort of call to attention. The Adagio cantabile possesses a classical clarity. At a certain moment, the two high voices play strikingly over the cello pizzicato. The third movement, although marked as Menuetto, is in fact a scherzo. A sprightly Allegro vivace in rondo-form concludes this lively work.
Recording listened to: Wiener Streichtrio on Calig (with trios by Possinger, Pleyel and Dittersdorf).

7. Franz Schubert, String Trio in B Flat Major D581 (1817)
Schubert wrote only one string trio (besides leaving an unfinished one). There has been much speculation why he would opt for a genre that by that time had fallen out of favor as it belonged more to the Classical, than to the Romantic age. But in Schubert's circle of friends and performers, the baryton trios by Haydn were for a time popular, and these could well have formed the inspiration. The string trio was written in 1817, before Schubert's true maturity, but it already contains elements of Schubert as we know him, especially in the harmonics of the first movement. The slow second movement has a siciliano-like main theme and a mysterious minor-mode episode at its center. In the trio of the Minuet, the viola is allowed to take center stage. The Rondo finale with a typical "trotting" main theme is good fun, with playful dramatic fortes, bravura triplets and mysterious pianissimo sixteenth notes. Despite its being a rarity in Schubert's oeuvre, this string trio has an undeniable charm all of its own.
Recording listened to: L'Archibudelli (Vera Beths, Jurgen Kussmaul and Anner Bylsma) on Sony Classical (with String Quartet D87 etc.).

8. Heinrich von Herzogenberg, String Trio Op 27/2 in F Major (1879)
The Austrian composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) was a great admirer of Brahms, as is also clear from his many chamber works, which are usually first rate. Herzogenberg wrote two string trios, one after another, in 1879. They are both powerful works and it is all the more surprising that "Brahmsian" Herzogenberg opted for this "lean" genre: almost no major composer since Beethoven had composed string trios, also not chamber specialist Brahms himself. So it is not surprising that Herzogenberg looked to Beethoven as his model. The first movement begins unhurriedly, with the cello introducing the theme pizzicato; when the viola and then violin enter, it becomes clear this is a fugue. The romantic second theme is darkly chromatic. The Andantino is a "lied" which has a barcarole accompaniment. The Minuet is based on a deliberately old-fashioned, 18th c. melody; the trio is particularly lovely. In the Finale the music bustles along with proper animation. The second theme sounds a bit oriental. Brahms was especially pleased with Herzogenberg's twin trios and considered them as a high point in his oeuvre. They would call renewed attention to a genre that had been neglected in the 19th c., although true interest in the string trio among composers would still have to wait a few decades.
Recording listened to: Belcanto Strings on CPO (with Piano Quartet etc.)

9. Antonin Dvorak, Terzetto in C Major for 2 violins and viola, op. 74 (1887)
Dvorak wrote his Terzetto for the rare combination of two violins and viola, designing it for a chemistry student-violinist who lodged in the same house in Prague, as well as the violin teacher of that student, with the idea that he himself then could play along on the viola and make up a trio. So it was linked to a special occasion, the accidental availability of players of these three string instruments. In the event, the terzetto proved too difficult for the student and Dvorak then wrote another work for the same combination which was more aimed at amateurs. The Terzetto opens in a characteristically lyrical Bohemian mood, which is contrasted with a darker second theme. The Larghetto breathes a spirit of rural serenity, although the middle section with its leaping dotted rhythms, is more stormy. The Scherzo is a furiant, a Slavic dance, at first accompanied by the plucked strings of the viola. The final movement is a theme and variations, the theme rather funereal in character, and the variations suitably dramatic. The very effective trio (that almost makes one forget the absence of the cello) ends on a final C Minor.
Recording listened to: Vlach Quartet Prague on Naxos (with String Quartet Op 34).

10. Carl Reinecke, String trio in C Minor Op 249 (1898)
Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) was in his lifetime considered as one of Germany's foremost composers, besides being an important teacher at the Leipzig Conservatory. How unjustly it is that his music now has been forgotten (why are we only able to focus on such a tiny number of composers?), is demonstrated by the present string trio, a great late-Romantic work, written in an original and very contrapuntal style. It large scale is immediately clear from the dark and brooding Allegro moderato with which it starts. Reinecke often makes the three instruments sound like four. The Andante is a theme and variations based on a naive, quiet melody. This is followed by a brief Intermezzo, in fact a heavily syncopated scherzo. The big finale starts with a slow introduction, which has a certain valedictory quality. The ensuing Allegro un poco maestoso is brighter and constitutes a skillful blending of sonata and rondo forms. The movement is again densely scored, leading to a magnificent sound which belies the fact that we are only listening to three instruments. The trio concludes with a virtuoso fortissimo stretta. Reinecke has masterly followed in the footsteps of Herzogenberg.
Recording listened to: Belcanto Strings on MDG (with String Tro by Fuchs)



11. Ernö Dohnányi, Serenade in C Major for String Trio, Op 10 (1902)
Ernst von Dohnanyi (1877-1960; Ernö Dohnányi in Hungarian) was, with  Bartók and Kodály, Hungary's most versatile musician. He studied piano and composition in his native Pressburg (Bratislava) before entering the Budapest Academy. Dohnanyi was active as concert pianist, composer, conductor and teacher. He also wrote excellent chamber music - his First Piano Quintet was championed by Brahms. In his String Trio, he consciously took Beethoven's Op 8 Serenade for string trio as his model, as if he wanted to produce an updated version of the classical serenade for string trio. Dohnanyi's Serenade has five movements, and starts, like the one by Beethoven, with a short march. Dohnanyi introduces some Hungarian flavor in the counter melody. The second movement is a Romanza, based on a calm main theme with an evocative Hungarian character in the viola. Next comes a vigorous Scherzo, based on a playful, fugal main theme, with irregular rhythms. Dohnanyi skips both minuets that Beethoven inserted, also the second one with its polonaise character. Like Beethoven, he keeps the Andante with its Theme and Variations, in fact the most serious movement of his Serenade. The theme is elegiac and chorale-like in nature and in the variations Dohnanyi shows great craftsmanship. He again differs from Beethoven in the final movement. Instead of the return of the opening march, he uses a Rondo, but, as in the other movements, the theme is related to that of the initial march.
Recording listened to: The Schubert Ensemble of London on Hyperion (with the two piano quintets).

12. Max Reger, String Trio in A Minor Op 77b (1904)
Max Reger (1873-1916) was destined to become a school teacher like his father, but thanks to his interest in music and studies with the eminent musicologist Hugo Riemann, he became professor at the Leipzig Conservatory and one of the foremost conductors and organists of his time. In what was only a short life, he was able to compose a large oeuvre in which chamber music occupied an important part. After positioning himself early in the 20th c. as an extremely progressive composer, in 1904 he was ready for an aesthetic change. He turned back to the fluent and musicianly music of Mozart as an antidote to the technically overloaded compositions of his own time. That is for example clearly noticeable in the lyrical second theme of the opening movement of the 1904 String Trio. After the tense main theme, which literally explodes after a brief introduction and pushes tonality to its limits, this sunny second theme seems like a retreat into the safe haven of classical melody. The Larghetto has a deeply introspective quality, the Scherzo the quality of a German dance. In the Finale, Reger uses a theme from Mozart's opera Abduction from the Seraglio and dresses it in modern clothes. He ends with a jovial march, in true 18th c. serenade fashion. A trio full of surprises of meter, curious harmonies and interesting part writing, all under a neo-classical mask. In 1915 Reger wrote a second string trio (Op 141b) in his more spare late style.
Recording listened to: Mannheimer Streichquartett on MDG (with String Quartets Op 54)



13. Leó Weiner, String Trio in G Minor Op 6 (1908)
A native of Budapest, Leó Weiner (1885-1960) was one of the leading Hungarian music educators of the first half of the 20th c., and a composer in his own right. He was the teacher of such notable conductors as Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti, as well as the cellist János Starker. As a composer his idiom was conservatively romantic, in contrast to his contemporaries Bartók and Kodály. And although he added some Hungarian shadings to his harmonic language, folk music itself was not important to him. Weiner wrote much chamber music and the String Trio is one of his best works, with romantic and buoyant themes. The trio starts with an attractive Allegro con brio, in which the key is veiled by highly inventive harmonization. The second movement is a rhythmically interesting Scherzo with a strongly contrasting trio featuring some exotic harmonies. The third movement, Andantino, is a theme with three variations and a coda, based on a barcarole-like, rocking melody. The extremely fast and busily sounding sonata-form finale, Allegro con fuoco, is full of gaiety.
Recording listened to: Deutsches Streichtrio on Saphir (with string trios by Kodaly and Dohnanyi).

14. Robert Fuchs, String Trio in A Major Op 94 (1910)
The Austrian composer Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) was one of the most revered teachers of the Vienna Conservatory, molding the minds of such highlights as Mahler, Sibelius and Zemlinsky, but who was also too modest to promote his own compositions (his most popular work was his Orchestral Serenade Op 9). Later in life, he turned exclusively to chamber music. The string trio was composed for a renowned "ladies quartet" of Vienna. Its main feature is its clear architectonic design. The opening Allegro has a fresh and attractive theme. The Andante espressivo consists of five variations on a Scottish folk-song "O cruel was my father" (also included by Beethoven in his 25 Scottish Songs Op 108). They form nice character pieces. The richly chromatic Minuetto has a trio with a folk-like theme. The finale starts with a slow introduction, after which follows a light and charming fugue concluding with a thrilling Allegro vivace.
Recording listened to: Belcanto Strings on MDG (with String Tro by Reinecke)

15. Julius Röntgen, String Trio No 13 in A Major (1925)
For many decades one of the leading figures in Dutch musical life, Julius Röntgen came from a distinguished musical family and counted Brahms, Grieg and Nielsen among his friends. Between 1915 and 1930, Julius Röntgen wrote 16 string trios, of which only the first appeared in print during the composer's lifetime. This was the fate of much of the music, especially the chamber music, Röntgen wrote: it was composed for domestic use with his sons and musician friends (Röntgen himself taking the viola part) and therefore languished in manuscripts, forgotten by the world. In recent decades this has changed and much of Röntgen's music is now being performed, or at least available in recorded form. The 13th string trio was written in the Villa Gaudeamus in Bilthoven, to which Röntgen had retired from his post as Director of the Amsterdam Conservatory in order to devote himself to composition. The building, which is outwardly modeled on the shape of a grand piano, was built by Röntgen's architect son Frants and today houses the Gaudeamus Foundation. The Thirteenth String Trio is an amiable work. After the serene, dance-like first movement (Con moto) follows a mellifluous Andantino, in which violin and viola soar above the cello rumbling on below. The third movement sounds like a quirky folk dance and the final Allegro opens with a sostenuto like a funeral march, which is followed by a long cello melody. The anguished development leads to a symphonic climax. A work showing great mastery and musical profundity.
Recording listened to: Offenburger String Trio on Naxos (with String Trios 14, 15 and 16; first recordings).

16. Jean Cras, String Trio (1926)
Jean Cras (1879-1932) was a seafaring officer in the French navy with the final rank of Rear-Admiral, who composed his music mostly on long journeys aboard ship, receiving his inspiration from impressions by the sea and foreign countries. He was born in the naval city of Brest where he received an excellent musical education; later Henri Duparc became his teacher of composition. The String Trio by Jean Cras has been highly praised for its perfectly balanced sound and abundance of expression. The opening movement (without tempo marking), begins with a theme characterized by the swinging oscillation between two neighboring notes, played over the pulsating notes of the cello. The gentle second subject is interrupted by a call from the viola. The unique second movement consists of a serious of unrelated episodes, ranging from the meditative to a peasant dance and a wailing violin solo recalling the exotic sounds of the Levant. The quick third movement, Animé, presents a panorama of exotic travel impressions, played by the higher voices above the guitar-like strumming of the lower strings. In the end, the tempo reaches a feverish pitch. The final movement begins with a wild fugato, a Bach-like etude which morphs into a Gaelic dance feast from Cras' native Brittany. This is a highly original trio with a sound world all its own.
Recording listened to: Offenburger String Trio on Antes Edition (with string trios by Roussel and Francaix).

17. E.J. Moeran, String Trio in G Major (1931)
Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950) was an English composer who studied under Charles Villiers Stanford and later John Ireland at the Royal College of Music. He was also active collecting and arranging folk music of Norfolk and Suffolk, and the influence of the landscapes of these areas is evident in his music. Moeran came late in the canon of British composers influenced by folk-song and by his time such a style was already seen as conservative. He therefore never made a real breakthrough as a composer, although he wrote large-scale works as a Symphony, Violin Concerto, Cello Concerto and Sinfonietta, and was also active in chamber music. In recent years, his music has been rediscovered by connoisseurs. Moeran's String Trio dates from 1931 and was - like the below trio by Françaix - dedicated to the well-known Pasquier Trio. The opening Allegretto is in the unusual time of 7/8 which creates a rather unique effect. The striking Adagio is full of emotion and shows great dynamic range. A ferocious Moto vivace takes the place of a scherzo. The finale begins with a charming Andante grazioso which leads into a muscular Presto.
Recording listened to: Maggini String Quartet on Naxos (with string quartets).

18. Jean Françaix, String Trio (1933)
Jean Françaix (1912-1997) was a French neo-classical composer, known for his prolific output and vibrant style, marked by lightness, wit and conciseness. Françaix studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He was also influenced by Ravel and at an early time achieved his mature voice. Françaix wrote the String Trio in 1933, when he was only 21. The first movement is a light and brilliant perpetuum mobile. The scherzo is full of witticism, but with a touch of the ironic and grotesque. The Andante exudes a unique atmosphere of unsentimental sadness - Françaix's emotions are always reserved. The rondo finale is a wild whirl, which after a climax, unexpectedly disappears into silence. The accessible, witty character of Françaix's music has caused some to dismiss it as frivolous; I would rather say that his attractive style often led listeners and critics to ignore the depth and originality present in his music.
Recording listened to: Offenburger String Trio on Antes Edition (with string trios by Roussel and Cras).


19. László Lajtha, String Trio No 3 Op 41 "Soirs transylvains" (1945)
With 9 symphonies and 10 string quartets, László Lajtha (1892-1963) is regarded as one of Hungary's foremost symphonists. He was also active as ethno-musicologist (he joined Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály in their study of Hungarian folk song) and conductor. He studied in Budapest, Leipzig and in Paris with Vincent d'Indy, before himself becoming a teacher at the Budapest National Conservatory. Lajtha would always have a strong connection to France. While Lajtha's First String Trio was a Serenade in the style of Dohnányi (and Beethoven), his Third Trio is a massive work. Each of the four movements is connected with one of the seasons, as evocations of "nights in Transylvania" (supposedly during Lajtha's folk song gathering expeditions). In this way we have "Spring night or early moon and mountain meadow anemones," "Summer night or the melancholy of the endless," "Autumn night or shadows and barren trees" and "Winter night or sleigh-ride in fog." A feature common with a serenade is that all movements evoke a night mood. The first three movements are relatively slow and meditative, only the fourth one has a lively dance pulsation. Of course, Lajtha uses various folk song melodies in the work that with its often very high and airy, even brittle tones, has a definitely exotic character, It was premiered in 1954 in Vienna.
Recording listened to: Members of the Lajtha Quartet on Hungaroton (with String Trio Op 41).


20. Arnold Schoenberg, String Trio Op 45 (1946)
The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was associated with the Expressionist movement in German culture, and leader of the "Second Viennese School." Because of the rise of the Nazi Party, which forbade his works since he was Jewish, Schoenberg moved to the United States in 1934. In the 1920s, he developed the twelve-tone technique, a compositional method of manipulating an ordered series of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale. Schoenberg was also an influential teacher and his students included Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Hanns Eisler, Egon Wellesz, and later John Cage and Lou Harrison. Because of his revolutionary ideas, Schoenberg can be called one of the most influential of 20th-century musical theorists and composers. Schoenberg's name would come to stand for "avant-garde music" and  "atonality," the most important feature of 20th-century art music. The twelve-tone String Trio was written in 1946 after Schoenberg suffered a nearly fatal heart attack. It unfolds as a single movement in three sections; the first of these functions as exposition, the second as development, and the last as a shortened recapitulation and coda. The harmonic and melodic material are derived from a single primary row and its permutations. Color and timbre are of the utmost importance - Schoenberg draws upon an extensive palette of playing techniques, including plucking the strings (pizzicato), striking them with the bow, playing close to the bridge of the instrument, using the wooden part of the bow, playing on more than one string simultaneously, sliding a finger along a string to change the pitch smoothly, lightly touching the strings to make them play very glassy pitches, etc. There are also extreme shifts of loudness and other contrasts. The trio lasts about twenty minutes before it fades away with a few beautiful tone rows.
Recording listened to: Corda Quartett on Stradivarius (with String Quartet in D etc).



21. William Alwyn, String Trio (1959)
William Alwyn (1905-1985) was an English composer and music teacher. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he later became professor of composition himself. Alwyn had a large compositional output including five symphonies, four operas, several concertos, 70 film scores and chamber music. He relished dissonance, and devised his own alternative to twelve-tone serialism. The String Trio was written in 1959, a period Alwyn experimented with short scale groups. The work is in four, relatively short movements. The first movement begins with a short and energetic passage, which is followed by a tranquil theme using the whole twelve notes. It is then developed in canon by all three instruments. The second movement is a Scherzo based on a five-note group derived from the twelve notes used in the first movement (and which returns in the trio of the Scherzo). The third movement is a song-like Cavatina in a quiet and reflective mood. The last movement plunges into a rhythmic finale; in the coda, an augmented version of the twelve-note theme brings the work to a tranquil close.
Recording listened to: Hermitage String Trio on Naxos (with other chamber works by Alwyn).


22. Alfred Schnittke, String Trio (1985)
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was a Soviet and Russian composer whose early music shows the influence of Dmitri Shostakovich. He later developed a polystylistic technique and often quotes other music in a decidedly post-modern and extroverted way. His last works have a more withdrawn, bleak mood. Schnittke wrote 10 symphonies, many concertante works (such as a beautiful viola concerto), but was also strong in chamber music. His String Trio solves the difficulty of the genre of having only three voices by exploiting the potential of every stringed instrument to suggest more than one voice. We seem to hear not just three but often six or seven voices at once, constantly being passed from one instrument to another. The work is in two long movements, Moderato and Adagio, which are related in subtle and unexpected ways. Music from the first movement reappears in the second, but in a transformed and developed form and from a different perspective (to make the "old" seem "new" has been called a fundamental principle in Schnittke's music). The String Trio was written in 1985 as a tribute to Alban Berg (for his 100th birthday), a composer whose music has played an important part in the development of Schnittke's own musical language. The String Trio was arranged for string orchestra by Yuri Bashmet under the new title "Trio Sonata."
Recording listened to: 1999 AFCM Ensemble on Naxos (with Piano Quintet). The version for string orchestra by Yuri Bashmet is available on RCA Victor played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich (with Viola Concerto).
[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
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