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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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October 22, 2015

Best String Quintets

The string quintet goes back to the violin consorts from the early 16th c. which played four- or five-part dance music (usually a single violin with two or three violas and a bass). The instrumentation of two violins, two violas and bass appears in Monteverdi's opera Orfeo, which was written in 1607. This instrumentation was afterwards used in German consort music, but French composers, for example, continued using the layout with one violin, three violas and bass well beyond 1700. In the early 17th century most German composers switched to four part (string quartet) scoring and five-part writing became less popular. 

In the 1750s the young Joseph Haydn composed two quintets for the combination of two violins, two altos and cello. Labelled "Cassatio," these are light, divertimento-like works that were intended for outdoor serenade concerts (most of such works therefore contained wind instruments as horns or oboes, the string quintet instrumentation is rare).

These are isolated examples and we have to wait until the 1770s before the string quintet really takes off. In Austria that is in 1773 in the works of Joseph Haydn's brother Michael Haydn, who in turn inspired Mozart; and in Madrid the Italian composer Luigi Boccherini who started writing the first of his 125 string quintets in 1771.

Much has been made of the fact that the Haydns and Mozart wrote for the combination of two violins, two violas and one cello (I have called this "viola quintets") and Boccherini mainly for the combination of two violins, one viola and two cellos (so-called "cello quintets"). This was undoubtedly for practical reasons: Mozart himself preferred the viola (also as a player) and Boccherini was a renowned cellist who served royal patrons who also played the cello (but Boccherini also wrote a dozen "viola quintets" as well as three quintets where the second cello is replaced with a double bass).

This division is then used to construct a bloodline of "true" string quintets, the majority, those with two violas, as this was the instrumentation used by the Viennese Classics Mozart and Beethoven and composers in their line such as Mendelssohn and Brahms. But of we look at the history of the string quintet, it becomes questionable whether "viola quintets" indeed are in the majority. Not only were quintets with two cellos also written in Vienna (for example by Dittersdorf, who presented them to the Prussian King, the sponsor of Boccherini), the composer who wrote the largest number of string quintets (34) after Boccherini, Georg Onslow, wrote for two cellos (interestingly, of each quintet seven parts were published by Onslow, so that the second cello could be flexibly replaced either by a second viola or a double bass). Also Reicha, Dotzauer, Goldmark and Gouvy wrote "cello quintets," while the above-mentioned "double bass quintet" (two violins, one viola, one cello and double bass) was popular with Eybler, Gebel and Dvorak. And it is not only a matter of quantity: what is often called the greatest string quintet ever written, the C Major Quintet by Franz Schubert, was written for two cellos.

If we put this all together, looking at the history of the string quintet, we can say that it originated in the 1770s, with Boccherini and Mozart (besides the Haydns); and that it has its roots in serenade music. Of course, the string quintet was also influenced by the string quartet and its sonata-form and development principles. The instrumentation of the string quintet was for a long time flexible, as until the 1870s we find quintets with either two violas or two cellos, and also quite some with a double bass. Most string quintets were written in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, even in this period the string quintet was far less popular than the string quartet and even the string trio, and in the Romantic and modern periods it will loose even more ground, although we do encounter some single, fascinating works, as the string quintets by Gouvy, Brahms, Nielsen and Vaughan Williams. But there are very few modern string quintets, which is in fact surprising considering the rich symmetry and combinatorial potential of the scoring.

In this later period, the string quintet with two violas has finally become standard. It is interesting to see that many string quartets qua character retain something of the serenade roots of the genre, in the sense that string quintets are more relaxed than for example string quartets, or piano quartets / piano quintets. The genre is not used for stormy, restless music, but rather for works in a pleasant vein - which becomes clear when, for example, comparing the string quintets by Brahms with that composer's string quartets, piano trios or piano quartets.

Here is my list of best string quintets:


1. Michael Haydn, Quintet in C Major P108 (1773; "viola quintet")
Michael Haydn (1737-1806), who worked most of his life as Musical Director and Konzertmeister at the Court of Salzburg, has always stood in the shadow of his famous brother Joseph, but is a very interesting composer in his own right. He wrote a great deal of church music, plus stage works, vocal works (his unaccompanied songs became a Salzburg specialty which influenced Schubert), 46 symphonies, serenades, divertimenti for various combinations, string quartets and string quintets. The present string quintet dates from 1773 and has four movements with a very melodious adagio in second position and a minuet as third movement. The music strikes the listener as serenade music - Michael Haydn's string quintets were probably inspired by the already popular serenade and divertimento music for wind instruments. The present string quintet in C influenced Mozart, and stimulated him to write his own first string quintet, the B Flat major Quintet K174. Mozart was also interested in Michael Haydns' 1773 G Major quintet: he wrote a new trio for the Minuet and enlarged the Finale. By the way, brother Joseph, who wrote about 68 string quartets, didn't write any real string quintets, although in the 1750s he composed two Cassatios (divertimentos) for the combination of 2 violins, 2 violas and bass.
Recording listened to: Concilium Musicum conducted by Paul Angerer on Koch Schwann (with quintets in G and F).



2. Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, String Quintet No 3 in C Major (1789; "cello quintet")
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) was born near Vienna and worked as Kapellmeister and court composer for various courts in the Austrian empire. His six string quintets were written in 1789 for the Prussian King, who was a very able cello player and not incidentally therefore also sponsor of Boccherini - who as court composer in absentia (he lived in Madrid) wrote a large amount of music for Berlin. Dittersdorf therefore wrote so-called "cello quintets," with two cellos (as Boccherini did) and not two violas. The quintets by Dittersdorf were printed in 81 copies (quite a lot for that time) and autographed copies were presented to the King and other members of the court. The quintets are in three movements and like those by Michael Haydn are still closely allied to the divertimento tone, and not only so in the variations with characteristic pizzizato. The first violoncello part written for the king has very expressive solos in all the string quintets - again like those by Boccherini. The second movement of the present quintet is an attractively naive Andante; the final movement is an Allemande.
Recording listened to: Franz Schubert Quartet with Julius Berger, 2. violoncello, on CPO (with String Quintet No 6 and String Quartets No 2 and 6).

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, String Quintet in E Flat Major K614 (1791; "viola quintet")
Mozart wrote six string quintets: the early quintet K173 from 1773 which was inspired by Michael Haydn as we saw above; two mature quintets, K515 and K516 from 1787 (Mozart wanted to publish these as a set of three and therefore added a string quintet adaptation of the Serenade K.388 as K406). and two "late" quintets from 1790 (K593) and 1791 (K614). Mozart experienced much difficulty writing for the string quartet, and apparently felt better at home in the domain of the string quintet, with its added middle voice. His four last original string quintets are generally considered as the best he ever wrote for a string ensemble. All four woks are equally great; I have selected the last quintet here, which is bright and joyful on the surface, but with an indefinable Mozartian melancholy underneath. Interestingly, commentators detect a certain open air quality in this quintet, as one expects in wind serenades, as if Mozart is harking back to the serenade origin of the string quintet. The first movement opens with a hunting call in the violas, which is answered gracefully by the violins. The second theme is sweeter and more intimate, but in the development the more public first theme plays the largest role. The slow movement has the character of the graceful dance and the minuet is jovial, like those of Haydn. The finale is good-humored and joyful, except for a brief fugue-like section, which is more stormy.
Recording listened to: Kuijken String Quartet with Ryo Terakado, viola, on Denon (with String Quartet K174).

4. Luigi Boccherini, String Quintet Op 45 No 4 in C Major (1792; "cello quintet")
Boccherini's compositions for string quintet span the years 1771 through 1802. During this period which is mainly taken up with his tenure at two royal courts, that of the Infante Don Luis de Bourbon in Madrid from 1770-1785, and that of King Frederick William II of Prussia from 1785-1797 (it is surmised that he fulfilled this position in absentia, staying on in Madrid), he wrote an immense amount of chamber music: twelve piano quintets, six guitar quintets, seventy-seven string quartets, twenty-four string trios, eighteen flute quintets, six string sextets, and so on. And then there are 125 string quintets, the largest number ever written by a single composer. With only few exceptions (12 quintets with two violas and 3 with double bass) these were all for two cellos, a genre invented by Boccherini so that as a cellist he could play himself in the quintet. Moreover, his royal sponsors were both cellists as well. The quintet Op 45 No 4 (most quintets were published in sets of six) dates from 1792 and shows Boccherini at the height of his instrumental and expressive powers. The Allegro assai is characterized by dynamic contrasts and an original harmonic path taken in the development section. The Andantino is in rondo-form and has a gracious and sinuous theme. The Minuetto is full of impetus and the Finale is filled with gaiety and brilliant passages.
Recording listened to: Europa Galante on Opus 111 (with quintets Op 46/4 and Op 11/6)

5. Anton Wranitzky, String Quintet in E Flat Major Op 8 No 3
(1800; for 1 violin, 2 violas, 2 cellos)
The Czech violinist and composer Anton Wranitzky (Antonín Vranický, 1761-1820) was a pupil of Mozart, Haydn and Albrechtsberger and a central figure in Viennese music life around the turn of the 18th c. His career was sponsored by Prince Lobkowitz. His brother, Paul Wranitzky, was also active in Vienna as composer and conductor. Besides symphonies, violin and cello concertos, Anton Wranitzky wrote about 60 chamber works. The String Quintet in E Flat is from a set of three composed around 1800 for the unusual instrumentation of one violin, two violas and two cellos. Wranitzky sets out to explore the resultant sonorities, which are quite interesting (and warmly colored) due to the preponderance of the lower strings. The quintet is in four movements. The opening movement is in sonata form. The second movement, Andante con moto, is relatively fast. The final movement starts with a slow introduction, a broad Adagio. The faster section that follows has a folk music-like character. An interesting "compromise" between a viola quintet and a cello quintet!
Recording listened to: Ensemble Cordia on Brilliant Classics (with String Sextet in G).

6. Joseph Eybler, String Quintet in A Major Op 6 No 2 for violin, 2 violas, cello and double bass (1801)
Joseph Eybler (1765-1846) was a younger contemporary of Mozart. He studied under Albrechtsberger and had many high posts as court musician. Eybler's main compositions were sacred music, including oratorios, masses, and cantatas, but he also composed opera, songs and instrumental music. In that last category, his six string quintets are especially prominent. They are in the tradition of the 18th c. Austrian serenade and are all in five or six movements. Moreover, they are for the type of instrumentation where the second cello is replaced by a double bass. Eybler treats the instruments in a concertante way and gives all of them them soloistic passages. The prominent lower voices endow the music with great depth of sound. An Allegro drawing on sonata-form, preceded by a slow opening, sets the tone of the piece as a playfully, gallant divertimento. This is followed by a slower movement sandwiched between two Minuets, each with two Trios. An Adagio provides a pause before the rapid final movement. This good-natured, laid-back music puts listeners in a good mood.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt on Claves (with String Quintet in B-Flat Major).

7. Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quintet in C Op 29 (1801; "viola quintet")
As we saw already above in the section about Mozart, composers (and also unscrupulous hack publishers) often adapted other works for string quintet. Those numerous arrangements greatly inflated the quantity of string quintets. Beethoven himself arranged his Octet for wind instruments as well as his Third Piano trio for string quintet, while protesting against unauthorized arrangements of his Septet and First Symphony for this medium. In fact, he only wrote one original string quintet, the one we are discussing here. It is a confident, resourceful work that has been deftly written for this instrumentation. Stylistically, it follows the Op 18 string quartets, but with the greater spaciousness provided by the addition of the extra viola. The first movement starts with a broad statement. The slow movement is expansively lyrical and also the scherzo is on a large scale. The vigorous finale has orchestral qualities. Strangely, this beautiful work is little known in comparison with Beethoven's other chamber music.
Recording listened to: Hausmusik on EMI Classics (with Septet in E Flat).



8. Anton Reicha, String Quintet in A Major No 1 (1802-1803; "cello quintet," "for solo violoncello with string quartet")
Anton Reicha (1770-1836) was an exact contemporary of Beethoven, whose friend he was. Born in Prague, he was active in Bonn, Hamburg and Vienna, before settling down in Paris in 1808. Reicha was an accomplished theorist, and wrote several treatises on various aspects of composition. He is also remembered for his substantial contributions to the wind quintet literature. Around 1800, when in Vienna, he wrote six viola quintets as well as the present cello quintet as part of a set of three. These three works are different from other cello quintets in the sense that the first cello is treated as a virtuoso solo instrument - like in the string quartets of Viotti or Paganini with their solo violin. In other words, these are "mini cello concertos." They have three movements, fast-slow-fast. Like Beethoven did in his Razumovsky Quartets of roughly the same period, in the finale of the present quintet, Reicha has included a Russian theme.
Recording listened to: Anner Bylsma with L'Archibudelli on Sony Classics (with String Quintets No 2 and 3).



9. Sigismund Neukomm, String Quintet "L'amante abandonnée" (1812-13; "viola quintet")
Sigismund Neukomm (1778-1858) was an Austrian composer and pianist who studied under Michael Haydn. He had quite an adventurous life: from 1804 to 1809 he was Kapellmeister in St. Petersburg, and in the 1810s he spent time in Brazil, where he popularized the works of Haydn and Mozart. Among his chamber works are six string quintets, three for 2 cellos and three for 2 violas, written in 1812 or 1813 when Neukomm resided in Paris. The cello quintets are remarkable as they are a sort of program music. "L’amante abandonnée" means "The Abandoned Lover" and  it is a story about "being in love" (first movement called "Amour"), "unfaithfulness" (second movement called "Infidélité") and finally "the despair of one whose lover has been unfaithful" (third movement called "Désespoir"), a plot line that may remind listeners somewhat of the First String Quartet "Kreutzer Sonata" by Janacek. The difference is of course that Neukomm's musical language is classically graceful and elegant, and that here the unfaithful one is the man and the "abandoned lover" is the woman. After the highs and lows of being in love in the romantic first movement, the second one is a set of variations on a French song and the last one, Allegro agitato, is suitably stormy.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Les Adieux on NCA (with String Quintet "Une fete de village en Suisse").

10. Franz Schubert, String Quintet in C Major Op 163 D956 (1828; "cello quintet")
Schubert's string quintet is from the last year of his all too short life and is conceived on the same vast scale as some other late works, like the Symphony No 9 in C and the String Quartet in G, D. 887. Overall, it is harmonically, rhythmically and melodically complex. The entire piece is informed by a seemingly endless flow of expansive, song-like melody and has a near-orchestral richness (also thanks to the presence of two cellos, in the instrumentation created by Boccherini and further popularized by Onslow). The huge first movement is cast in sonata form but starts immediately with an ambiguous harmonic progression that pulls the rug out from under the listener's feet. It sometimes reminded me of Bruckner. It has a passionate character and this atmosphere is carried over into the elegiac slow movement. Pizzicato accompaniment is used to create a feeling of restlessness. In contrast, the Scherzo is robust, but the trio is again surprisingly doleful. The joyous finale has a sort of Hungarian flavor and ends with an energetic coda full of enigmatic melancholy. Also due to Schubert' death at age thirty-one in November 1828, the string quintet had to wait two decades before its first performance and it was only published in 1853. Since then it has been considered as one of the high points in the entire chamber literature.
Recording listened to: Yo-yo Ma and the Cleveland Quartet on CBS. 



11. Georges Onslow, String Quintet in C Minor Op 38 "The Bullet" (1829; "cello quintet")
George Onslow (1784-1853) was a French composer of English descent. His inherited wealth allowed him to follow his own path, that of chamber music, in a nation (France) addicted to opera. He studied the piano under Cramer and Dussek and his music was popular in Germany and England. Onslow lived near Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne, his place of birth where his father owned a castle, and spent the winter seasons with their concerts in Paris. Onslow wrote 36 string quartets, 34 string quintets, 10 piano trios, cello sonatas, a septet, a nonet, etc. He also wrote four symphonies, all music that today is finally being rediscovered, although in the 1830s Onslow's music had become quite popular, even in France. But his interest in chamber ensembles and chamber forms aligned him more closely with the German than the French musical tradition, like Gouvy (see below). Except the first three, all his string quintets were cello quintets, although he provided options such as to replace the second cello with a double bass. Unique was that Onslow managed to merge the drama of the opera into the chamber music idiom, something clear from the present quintet, his fifteenth, written in 1829 after Onslow had suffered a bullet wound while on a wild boar hunt. The bullet, a stray shot from one of the other hunters, ripped through his ear and lodged itself in his neck (where it would remain the rest of life, for it could not be removed; moreover, he became deaf in one ear). The quartet is not program music (thankfully, there are no hunting calls or ringing shots), but it describes Onslow's agonized mental state after the accident. The Allegro is called "melancolico," and the menuetto under the title "dolore, febbre e delirio" describes his "fever and delirium" when he lay ill. The Andante is called "convalescenza" or "convalescence" and the Finale "guarigione," which means "recovery." The melancholy is kept in check by Onslow's counterpoint and his harmonic language is always interesting, as is his inventiveness. During the 19th c., this was Onslow's most popular quintet.
Recording listened to: L'Archbudelli & Smithsonian Chamber Players (with Quintets Op. 39 & 40)


12. Friedrich Dotzauer, String Quintet in D Minor Op 134 (1835; "cello quintet")
Friedrich Dotzauer (1783-1860) was a German cellist and composer. He played with several major orchestras in Germany, such as the Gewandhaus and the Dresden Court Orchestra. As an important cellist, he was famous for his Violoncellschule, 113 exercises and caprices for the unaccompanied cello, but he also wrote symphonies, concertos, chamber works and sonatas. His playing at concerts was greatly admired in Germany, Austria, France and the Netherlands and his teaching resulted in what is known as the "Dresden school" of cello performance - many of his students became famous cellists in their own right. The String Quintet in D Minor is of course a "cello quintet." Its starts with a short dramatic introduction which leads to the lyrical main theme. The Minuetto is really a bumpy scherzo. The Poco Adagio is based on a beautiful folk melody and has lovely harmonies. The drive of the finale is now and then broken by more lyrical moments. Dotzauer wrote in the Romantic style of Onslow and Spohr and this quintet certainly deserves to be better known.
Recording listened to: Anner Bijlsma, Violoncello, with L'Archibudelli & Smithsonian Chamber Players on Sony Classical (with Quartet etc.).

13. Felix Mendelssohn, String Quintet No 2 in B Flat Major Op 87 (1845; "viola quartet") 
Mendelssohn, who had an intimate understanding of string music and was himself a gifted player, wrote two string quintets, one in 1826, a mellifluous and sweet work written when he was seventeen, and one in 1845, a stormy and much darker work, which was only published after his death. The Second String Quintet often reminds listeners of the famous String Octet, although that work belongs to the same period as the First Quintet. The windswept first movement starts in a brilliant vein, with the first violin leading in a soloistic capacity with a typical "flying" theme. It has a great sense of urgency and has a rather agitated character. But it is also great string music that often sounds like a whole string orchestra. The Andante scherzando is quirky, in its minor key like the shadow of an ancient dance. The following Adagio e lento is a somber mournful piece, dark and gripping like a funeral march (it reminded me somewhat of the slow movement of Schumann's piano quintet). The hyperactive and sparkling Finale, in contrast, positively bursts with energy. A subtle and nuanced string quintet, one of the best.
Recording listened to: The Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion (with String Quintet No 1).



14. Karl Goldmark, String Quintet in A Minor Op. 9 (1862; "cello quintet")
Carl (Karoly) Goldmark (1830-1915) was born in a Jewish family in Austria-Hungary. His early musical training was at local conservatories, although he also studied briefly in Vienna, the city where he was active for the rest of his life. Today, Goldmark is still known for his Violin Concerto and the Rustic Wedding Symphony, but he also wrote interesting chamber music. His musical style was closer to Mendelssohn and Schumann, with a whiff of exoticism, than to that of his friend Brahms. The string quintet is one of the early works with which Goldmark tried to establish himself in Vienna, a work with ripe textures thanks to the use of a second cello. The opening theme's passionate anxiety is soon quelled by a second theme of rustic charm and in the whole movement pathos is outweighed by quiet nostalgia. The deeply emotional Andante con moto shows the influence of Mendelssohn and Schumann. The robust Scherzo has drone effects reminiscent of a peasant dance. The Finale begins in a funereal vein with a slow introduction, but an increase in tempo launches a struggle between dark and light and the major key is finally re-won in an affirmative way. A quintet full of fresh invention.
Recording listened to: Fourth Dimension String Quartet with Davis Smith, cello, on ASV (with String Quartet Op. 8).

15. Théodore Gouvy, String Quintet in G Op 55 (1870; "cello quintet")
Théodore Gouvy (1819-1998) was born in the Lorraine, educated in Paris, but mostly worked in Germany. His music follows German forms but fills them with French sensibility. The string quintet is in the instrumentation with two cellos, which was not at all rare in the 19th c., as is so often wrongly asserted. The first movement is remarkable for the beauty of its themes and idyllic atmosphere, but not with an undertone of drama. The Andantino is a funeral march which is interrupted twice for a dialogue between violin and cello. The Scherzo is courteous but also has a steely quality. The finale is a rondo starting with a pleasant, light theme. The development, however, has a more tragic character. Like all Gouvy's chamber music, this is a most beautiful quintet that will win over listeners with its great melodies and imagination.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Denis Clavier with Herve Renault, 2nd cello

16. Antonin Dvorak, String Quintet in G Major Op 77 B49 for 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass (1875)
Dvorak wrote three string quintets: an apprentice work of 1861 and a mature masterpiece written in America in 1893, but the Second String Quintet is interesting for its use of a double bass, like in the quintets by Eybler or Gebel (and optional in Onslow). It was written in 1875 (and revised in 1888), in a prolific period when Dvorak was finding his own, distinctive compositional style. He entered the work in a competition and in fact won a prize, which again helped him to get a state scholarship so that he could devote himself more to composition. Interestingly, from the point of view of the use of a double bass and therefore the serenade character of the quintet, the work used to include five movements, like a real serenade, but the second slow movement, an intermezzo (notturno), was later discarded by Dvorak as he felt the total work had become too long. It is now sometimes restored during performance and often included on the same CD with the quintet itself. The first movement starts interestingly with a sort of "question mark." It is in regular sonata form with two themes. The sharply rhythmic Scherzo anticipates Dvorak's Slavic period. The third movement is lyrical, with broadly arching melodies. The final movement is in rondo form; there are only two themes, but these are subject to variations each time they re-appear.
Recording listened to: The Coull Quartet with Peter Buckoke, double bass, on Hyperion (with Notturno and String Quartet in E Flat Major B92).



17. Anton Bruckner, String Quintet in F Major (1879; "viola quintet")
Anton Bruckner wrote his String Quintet in F major at the request of the famous Viennese violinist Joseph Hellmesberger. However, the request was done in 1861, and Bruckner did not meet the demand of his client until 17 years later. When Helmessberger saw the work, he found the Scherzo too difficult, and Bruckner obliged by composing an alternative, an Intermezzo. But when Hellmesberger finally played the quintet with his quartet in 1885, he after all used the original scherzo. That is also how the Quintet is today usually played; on CD, sometimes the Intermezzo is added as an extra. The String Quintet is one of Bruckner's rare chamber works, written when he also worked on his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and it is hard to believe its creator had little familiarity with string chamber music. The String Quintet is among the finest pieces of Bruckner's maturity and established itself as a worthy successor to Schubert's equally expansive but very different piece. The scope of the work is indicated from the very opening with its flow of broad melodies. The Scherzo is full of sparkling ideas, but it is the Adagio that is the heart of the quintet, a sublime piece of music that expresses almost unbearable bliss. The Finale rounds off the work in a suitably majestic way.
Recording listened to: The Vienna Philharmonia Quintet on Decca (with Piano Quintet by Franz Schmidt).

18. Johannes Brahms, String Quintet in F Major No 1 Op 88 (1882; "viola quintet") 
Brahms wrote two string quintets, one in F Major in 1882 and another one in G Major in 1890. Both are works of his maturity. The first String Quintet comes between his second and third symphonies and just after the Second Piano Concerto; it was written while Brahms spent the summer in the spa town of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria. Earlier, Brahms had tried to write a "cello quintet," but that was eventually reworked into his Piano Quintet. In the meantime, he wrote his three string quartets, straining at the boundaries of the medium, and he must have been relieved to come to the quintet genre which allowed him greater freedom, like the two string sextets he had written in the 1860s. The First String Quintet has a complex structure: it is in three movements, but the second movement combines the functions of slow movement and scherzo. The quintet opens with "luminous nobility," with a sort of pastoral theme that seems inspired by the natural surroundings in which he spent his summer holiday, away from the stress of Vienna. It is a movement infused with late summer light, in which also a few melancholy shadows fall. The second movement is a set of double variations on two neo-Baroque dances Brahms wrote in the 1850s for piano, but never published. It is a dark and stirring movement, called Grave ed appassionato, and it is juxtaposed with two scherzo-like, faster sections, as if symbolizing our ultimate loneliness in the midst of the busy world. The Finale opens with two abrupt, stabbing chords, and is built on the combination of a sonata movement with a fugue, like in Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 59 No. 3. But this is not in any way heavy or learned music, it wears its classicism lightly and is filled with a special exhilaration thanks to its strong rhythmic drive. It ends all in a riotous coda. Brahms himself considered this quintet as one of his best works.
Recording listened to: Juilliard String Quartet with Walter Trampler, viola on Sony Classical (with String Quintet No 2).



19. Carl Nielsen, String Quintet in G Major (1888; "viola quintet")
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is regarded as Denmark's greatest composer, with six major symphonies to his credit, as well as three interesting solo concertos, among which one for the flute. The string quintet is an early work, written when Nielsen was 23. It is full of energy and a sort of robust joy at music making. The first movement, Allegro pastorale, is in a lilting 9/8 meter. It is in sonata form and contains three main themes. This is followed by a melodious Adagio centered around a solemn theme. A fiery and colorful Allegretto scherzando is followed by an exuberant sonata form Finale, capped by a Coda marked Presto. A vigorous work of unmistakable originality. It was only published in 1937, after the composer's death, but is now considered as an important addition to the string quintet genre.
Recording listened to: Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos (with String Octet by Svendsen etc.).



20. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Phantasy Quintet (1912; "viola quintet")
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) studied at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry. His idiom was influenced by his collecting of English folk music - like that of his friend and colleague Gustav Holst, his music is characteristically English.  He wrote symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores. The present quintet was dedicated to William Wilson Cobbett, the music patron who encouraged the composition of "phantasies," named after the traditional viola consort fantasies of an earlier period of English music. The work consists of four short movements. First a prelude based on thematic material of pentatonic outline, next a Scherzo with an asymmetrical rhythm. The slow movement is called "alla sarabanda" and played by muted strings without the cello. The final Burlesca is filled with echoes of folk-song. A wonderful work, with a sort of dreamy atmosphere.
Recording listened to: Maggini Quartet with Garfield Jackson, Viola, on Naxos (with String Quartet 1 & 2).


[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)]
Posts about classical music include:

October 16, 2015

Best Piano Trios, Part Two

The piano trio was established as a genre by Mozart in the late 1780s, and continued by Beethoven in 1793 in his "opus 1." The piano trio developed out of the "accompanied keyboard sonata," in which the pianoforte (at that time a rather weakly sounding instrument - the Mozart piano trios with equal forces became only possible after pianos with a stronger sound were developed in Vienna in the 1770s) was accompanied by a violin to strengthen the melody in the right hand and a cello (or other lower string instrument) to double the bass of the keyboard left hand. This also fitted in the performance situation where daughters would get a good education as pianists, meaning they could play also difficult piano parts, and sons would learn to play a string instrument, but only on a rather basic level as music was less important to them. Piano trios by other composers than Mozart and Beethoven (who wrote for professionals and semi-professionals rather than amateurs) would often still be called "accompanied sonatas" in the late 18th century, and would maintain the dominance of the pianoforte, in contrast to Mozart and Beethoven who wrote trios where all voices were of equal importance. Such composers were for example Dussek, Clementi, Pleyel and Kozeluch. Haydn also wrote a great many piano trios (about 45), which all have a dominant piano part - but different from other composers who wrote this type of trios, he greatly developed the piano part and wrote very difficult piano music, which in another way helped the development of the piano trio. Beethoven started writing piano trios consisting of four movements, which became the dominant structure in the 19th c. (although piano trios with three movements also exist). By the mid-nineteenth century, all three instruments had been modified to have a powerful sound, which liberated the piano trio (and other chamber music) from the home music tradition and made it concert music.

In my first article about "Best Piano Trios," I focused on trios by unknown composers. This second article is more a historical overview with important composers added, although there probably still remain "white spots" to fill in by way of a third post - the piano trio is a truly abundant genre (several readers have been so kind to make valuable suggestions; when I don't follow them up now, it is solely because I have not been able yet to listen to the music they have suggested!).


1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Trio in C Major K548 (1788)
Mozart wrote three great piano trios in which all instruments are equal and in which the piano trio was born as a fully developed genre: K502 in B Flat Major (1786), K542 in E Major and K548 in C Major (both 1788). Before that, he wrote the Divertimento in B Flat Major K254 in 1776), which is still more like an elaborate accompanied sonata; and the Piano Trio in G K496 (1786) which still has some problems with integrating the strings (in addition, Piano Trio K465 consists of "workshop debris," possibly from this trio). He also wrote an excellent clarinet trio, K498. Mozart has provided the scope for all three instruments to combine, imitate, alternate and vie with each other. The piano, although used as a concertante instrument, is treated with restraint to allow the strings their full share of the musical argument. We will look here at Mozart's last Piano Trio, the one in C Major. It contains some of Mozart's most successful scoring for the trio medium - the independence of the players is complete. Even though the cello frequently functions as the bass of the ensemble, its music is wholly liberated from the pianist's left hand. The two stringed instruments frequently have passages together without the piano. C Major was for Mozart always a key expressing loftiness - 1788 was also the year he wrote his great C Major symphony. This trio is characterized by richness of harmonic language. It opens with a fanfare-like unison for the whole trio, but for most of the movement it turns to the minor mode, syncopated by a sort of "chromatic sighs." The serene slow movement continues the complete independence of the three instruments, and the cello has a true solo, accompanied by the piano. The Allegro finale starts with a motif which, transformed into another fanfare-like theme, reappears after each of the episodes of this variegated rondo.
Recording listened to: London Fortepiano Trio on Hyperion (authentic instruments; with Piano Trio K254)

2. Joseph Haydn, Piano Trio No 40 in F Sharp Minor Hob XV26 (around 1795)
In contrast to Mozart, Haydn took the keyboard as the core of the piano trio, writing music for it of great brilliance. He was content to confine the strings to a largely coloristic role, to add warmth to the melodic lines or impart strength to the bass. They never determine the formal structure in any significant way. The violin is granted some independence in the later trios, but the role of the cello always remains very restricted. But, by the example of his masterful piano writing and structural inventiveness, also Haydn exerted an important influence on the new genre. Haydn wrote about 45 piano trios: 16 early works in the 1760s which still have the character of accompanied sonatas (the authenticity of some works from this period is doubtful); 14 works composed between 1784 and 1790, still designed mainly for the harpsichord; and 15 late trios written between 1794 and 1797, chiefly during the period of Haydn's second visit to London - these were intended for the piano and not for the harpsichord. These 15 late trios are clearly the most interesting. When Haydn wrote them, the above-mentioned trios by Mozart had already appeared, as well as the first three Piano Trios by Beethoven, which build further on Mozart. To this last group belongs the Piano Trio No. 40 in F Sharp Minor, in a key that harks back to Haydn's Sturm und Drang period of the 1770s. It is filled with a tense melancholy, but without loss of energy. The slow movement may be a reworking of the equivalent movement in the Symphony No. 102 (but it could also be the other way around). The finale is profound and tautly reined.
Recording listened to: London Fortepiano Trio on Hyperion (authentic instruments; with Piano Trios Nos 38 and 39).

3. Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano trio in B Flat Major Op 97 "Archduke" (1811, pub. 1816)
The importance of the piano trio for Beethoven is demonstrated by the fact that his Opus 1 consists of three piano trios. He wrote six in all (plus two apprentice works without opus number). After the three trios Op. 1, composed in 1793, these are two trios Op. 70 (1809) and one final piano trio, the one nicknamed "Archduke" after its dedication to Archduke Rudolph, written in 1811 but only published in 1816. Beethoven built further on the foundation laid by Mozart, but already in his early trios moved towards a more expansive conception of the genre. Although Haydn's influence is noticeable in the piano writing, there is also a new element of flamboyancy, probably derived from the virtuoso composers of the time as Dussek and Clementi. The "Archduke" trio possesses a true grandeur, which makes it one of the finest piano trios ever written. The first movement opens with an unforgettable, cantabile tune at a leisurely pace. The Scherzo is humorous, rather than savage or gruff. The slow movement is a set of variations on a hymn-like melody. Its main quality is serenity. The rondo finale begins with a jaunty melody which has a Hungarian flavor to it. The whole trio is infused with luminosity, with a particular feeling of happiness.
Recording listened to: Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano), Itzak Perlman (violin) and Lynn Harrell (cello) on EMI (Complete Piano Trios).


4. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Piano Trio No. 7 in E Flat Major Op. 96 (1822)
Hummel (1778-1837) was Mozart's favorite pupil (Hummel lived with the Mozart household and was treated like a son) and a virtuoso pianist and interesting composer in his own right. He wrote operas, masses, seven piano concertos and a large body of chamber music. He wrote no fewer than eight piano trios, the earliest an apprentice work from 1792, the other seven mature works composed between 1799 and the early 1820s. The Trio in E Flat Major was the last one Hummel wrote. The compact first movement is built on two contrasting themes. The second movement is a set of variations, although not described as such, perhaps because they are charmingly irregular. The last movement is a sonata-rondo "in the Russian style." The main theme is permeated by a dactylic rhythm associated with the polonaise.
Recording listened to: The Borodin Trio on Chandos (with Piano Trios Nos 1 & 5).


5. Schubert, Piano Trio No 1 in B Flat Major Op. 99 D. 898 (1827-28)
Schubert wrote two piano trios, both towards the end of his short life: the present one from 1827-28 and the one in E Flat Major from 1828, his last year. The E Flat Major trio was the more popular trio in the 19th century, thanks to its heroic mode, but nowadays the lyrical B Flat major trio is more highly regarded. Both are large-scale works, in the grand style of Beethoven's "Archduke" trio, full of spontaneous melodies. The B-Flat Major trio starts with a most happy and carefree sonata-allegro. Its bubbly opening theme is played on the violin and cello, and then turned over to the piano while the strings take over the bouncing accompaniment. The cello then presents the second theme, a wonderfully heartwarming melody, charming and lyrical. In the slow movement with its lullaby melody the cello is again used as a principal instrument. The third movement is in the classical minuet form, with the trio section resembling a relaxed waltz. The last dance-like movement is a rondo, of which the Viennese-sounding main theme is first presented by the violin. The free-form rondo also contains a rustic polonaise with drone effects in the piano. This  trio is truly a life-affirming work.
Recording listened to: Beaux Arts Trio on Philips (Complete Piano Trios).


6. Felix Mendelssohn, Piano Trio No 1 in D Minor Op 49 (1839). 
While Schumann has been credited with creating the Romantic piano quartet and piano quintet, with the present work Mendelssohn created the Romantic piano trio. The trio was written during Mendelssohn's appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, exerting himself to develop the musical life of that city which from then on would be central to 19th c. German music. The work exudes the sort of creative confidence that comes with personal success - at only thirty, Mendelssohn was acknowledged by the public as a fine composer and the leading conductor of his day. The first movement is characterized by a broad lyricism and strong Romantic passion. The following Andante is a beautifully proportioned "song without words." The whirlwind Scherzo has been said to even surpass its counterpart in A Midsummer Night's Dream in its brilliance. The driving, rhythmic Finale has symphonic ambitions, almost threatening to burst out of the score. In 1845 Mendelssohn wrote a Second Piano Trio that he dedicated to Louis Spohr.
Recording listened to: The Barbican Piano Trio on ASV (with music for piano trio by Ireland and Bush).



7. Louis Spohr, Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major Op 123 (1842)
Braunschweig-born Louis (Ludwig) Spohr (1784-1859) was one of the leading composers and violinists of the first half of the 19th century. Highly regarded during his lifetime, Spohr wrote ten symphonies, ten operas, eighteen violin concerti, four clarinet concerti, four oratorios and a huge number of works for chamber music ensemble (36 string quartets, 7 string quintets, five piano trios, four double quartets, etc.), all hovering between Classicism and Romanticism. As "trivia," it can be mentioned that he was the inventor of both the violin chin rest and the orchestral rehearsal mark; as conductor, he pioneered the use of the baton. Spohr's Second Piano Trio is the one written on the largest scale. The first movement Allegro moderato begins with a powerful opening phrase, while the second subject offers an example of imaginative scoring. The following Larghetto is a remarkable piece, starting with the cello (with only the piano for a soft accompaniment) in its lower registers singing a sad song. The violin later steals in as a consolatory middle voice. The Scherzo has some grotesque properties, with a haunting dance tune. The Vivace finale opens in the minor but leads to a decisive and satisfying final homecoming.
Recording listened to: Hartley Piano Trio on Naxos (with Fourth Piano Trio).

8. Alexander Ernst Fesca, Piano Trio No 5 Op 46 in B Minor (1845)
Alexander Ernst Fesca (1820-1849) was born in Karlsruhe as the son of the composer and music director Friedrich Ernst Fesca (whose symphonies are available on CPO). He received his first lessons from his father and later attended the Prussian Royal Conservatory in Berlin where he graduated with a degree in composition at the young age of 14. He then took up residence in Braunschweig as a chamber virtuoso to the local Prince. Unfortunately, Fesca died young from a lung ailment, which also led to him being forgotten, although his chamber music (including six piano trios) was very popular during his lifetime. The present Piano Trio was composed in Braunschweig in 1845 and is a most appealing work with a wealth of beautiful melodies. The first movement starts with an Andante con sentimento introduction in the style of a Barcarole in the major; as a contrast, this is followed by the hard-driving movement proper which is in the minor. The second movement is a highly charged Romance. Next comes a Scherzo which has the flavor of a rustic folk dance with bagpipe. The finale features more beautiful melodies; it is in sonata form but skips the development section.
Recording listened to: Trio Paian on CPO (with Piano Trio No 2).

9. Robert Schumann, Piano Trio No 1 in D Minor Op. 63 (1847)
Although Schumann in 1842 had written a seminal piano quartet and quintet, he didn't write a full-pledged piano trio until 1847 (in 1842, he wrote the lighter Fantasiestücke for piano trio). In fact, his wife Clara who was a great pianist - whose piano career was stalled as she had to work as housewife and rear children - wrote an interesting piano trio in 1846, stimulating her husband to try anew. In the end, Schumann would write three piano trios, two in 1847 and another one in 1851. The First Piano Trio was written  in a two-week burst of inspiration in the summer of 1847, and was clearly inspired by Mendelssohn's trio in the same key. It starts with energy and passion on a dark theme. Throughout the surging first theme, the pianist plays rapid arpeggios outlining the harmony. Schumann's most ingenious stroke in the movement is the new theme in the development section. This is followed by a restless Scherzo and a generously lyrical slow movement. The impetuous finale is run through with polyphonic passages. At end, all shadows are banished in a triumphant D major return of the first movement's opening theme.
Recording listened to: The Borodin Trio on Chandos (Complete piano trios). 



10. Friedrich Kiel, Piano Trio No 5 in G Major Op. 34 (1854)
Friedrich Kiel (1821-1885) first had music lessons from his father, a teacher, and later through the assistance of Louis Spohr, received a scholarship to study composition and counterpoint in Berlin with the renowned theorist Siegfried Dehn. Kiel later taught at the Stern Conservatory and the new Musikhochschule in Berlin. Although he also wrote a famous oratorio, Kiel generally excelled in chamber rather than symphonic music. One of his best works is the three movement Fifth Piano Trio, which boasts a fine melodic vein and excellent piano writing. It also shows Kiel's modesty, in the hesitancy with which the melody of the first movement makes its appearance. The second movement, Intermezzo, is characterized by an agitated middle section. The Finale starts out quite lively before turning inward to serenity - a term which perhaps aptly characterizes the mood of this whole, very appealing trio.
Recording listened to: Abegg Trio on Tacet (with Piano Trio by Goetz).



11. Bedrich Smetana, Piano Trio in G Minor Op. 15  (1855)
The Piano Trio was Smetana's (1824-1884) first chamber composition. It was written in 1855 to the memory of his first child, Bediska, who had died in September that year, at the age of four. The trio is thus an elegiac work, the first in a lengthy succession of such compositions for the medium by both Czech and Russian composers, as Dvorak, Foerster (see my first piano trio post), Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Arensky. While the Czech trios were conceived as personal expressions of grief over the loss of a close relative, the Russian ones were designed as tributes to the decease of distinguished professional colleagues. The Smetana Trio opens with the violin alone, playing the principal theme on the G string. The first movement is imbued with a stark atmosphere of tragedy. The second movement is a Scherzo framing two contrasting sections, an Andante and a Maestoso, in which an image of the dead daughter is called up. The Finale is a rondo built on a lyrical cello theme that symbolizes resurrection and transfiguration; despite a temporary step back into a funeral march, it is this positive music that concludes the trio. This trio by Smetana is generally considered as one of the most important examples of the genre in the second half of the 19th c., as striking for its individuality as for the sincerity of its expression.
Recording listened to: Trio Parnassus on MDG (with Piano Trio Op 32 by Arensky).

12. Camille Saints-Saens, Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major Op. 18 (1869)
Saint-Saens was an important chamber music composer, who left some fifty chamber works. Among these are two piano trios: the first one written in 1863 at the age twenty-eight; the second one in 1892 when he was fifty-seven. Although the Second Piano Trio is more ambitious (but also rather self-consciously "learned" in style), it lacks the freshness and effectiveness of the First Piano Trio which we will discuss here. The first movement starts with a youthful and natural theme, one of the most charming Saint-Saens ever wrote. The whole movement is filled with gaiety and joy of adventure and has a typically French harmonic vocabulary. The expressive Andante unfolds like an ancient ballad. The opening theme is intoned over a drone, like a hurdy-gurdy. The Scherzo sets out with a nonchalant, tongue-in-cheek character, full of cross-rhythms and pizzicato effects, and ends with another swing of the hurdy-gurdy. The Allegro finale starts with a naively sounding dialogue between violin and cello, accompanied by the piano, which as gradually becomes clear plays a half-hidden melody that will play an important part in this movement. The second theme is more vigorous and there are many opportunities for brilliance in the piano. A movement of delicate buoyancy.
Recording listened to: The Nash Ensemble on Virgin Classics (with Septet and Le Carnaval des animaux)


13. Edouard Lalo, Piano Trio No 3 in A Minor Op. 26 (1880)
Edouard Lalo (1823-1892) was born in Lille and studied the violin in Paris, but he never entered the Conservatoire. Although Lalo later turned passionately to the theater and symphonic works, the first part of his career was dominated by chamber music. Of Lalo's three piano trios the most outstanding is the last one in A Minor, composed in 1880. It impresses by its fresh thematic ideas, and also by its firmly controlled classical structure. The first movement Allegro appassionata starts with the statement of the main theme by the cello, accompanied by arpeggios on the piano. The lively scherzo contains a trio section based on Fauré's First Piano Quartet, published the year before. It is a perpetuum mobile with a very pronounced rhythm, swift and brilliant as lightning, and was later orchestrated by Lalo. The slow movement is particularly beautiful and subtle, a sweet reverie possessing great romantic warmth. The rhythmical Finale is full of spirit and ends with a bubbling coda.
Recording listened to: Trio Henry on Disques Pierre Verany (Complete Piano Trios by Lalo).

14. Antonín Dvořák, Piano Trio No 3 in F Minor Op 65 (1883)
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) wrote a large body of chamber music, including fourteen string quartets, three string quintets, a string sextet, two piano quintets, two piano quartets and four piano trios. Two of these trios fit into the Czech tradition of "funeral piano trios," as mentioned above in the section about Smetana. Dvořák wrote an earlier Piano Trio in G minor after the death of his eldest daughter, and the present one in F minor came into being shortly after the death of the composer's mother. In this strongly felt piano trio Dvořák also appears at his most Brahmsian, although the melodic style remains as always resolutely Slavonic. The first movement is full of passion, with a brooding and ominous opening theme. The second subject is more tender but in the development section the first theme gets more attention. The second movement, Allegretto grazioso, is not a scherzo, but a graceful dance in polka rhythm on a folk-style theme. It provides some relief after the drama we have just experienced. The slow movement starts on the cello with piano accompaniment, bringing a warmly eloquent theme. This movement is again very much in the style of Brahms. The finale is a large-scale sonata rondo, based on an exhilarating theme in the style of a Furiant, an energetic Czech dance characterized by cross-rhythms and off-beat accents. The second theme has a more sedate, waltz-like character. As stated above, there are in all four piano trios by Dvořák: in B Flat Op 21 and G Minor Op 26, both substantial four movement works written some eight years before the present trio, and the so-called Dumky trio of 1891, his most popular. But I think the F Minor Piano Trio discussed here is his most grandiose and serious in intent.
Recording listened to: Emanual Ax, piano, Young Uck Kim, violin, and Yo-yo Ma, cello, on CBS (with "Dumky" trio).

15. Johannes Brahms, Piano Trio No 3 in C Minor Op 101 (1886)
Brahms’s final piano trio was one of three chamber works (with the F Major Cello Sonata and A Major Violin Sonata) composed during an extended stay at Lake Thun, Switzerland, in 1886, which all exemplify the best of Brahms' late style. The Third Piano Trio is a compact and taut work, full of intensity, although still in the usual four movements. The Allegro energico starts with a dramatic statement, a sort of call for attention, as the restless first theme is played by the three instruments. The second theme is very lyrical and first presented in the cello, but the intensity never wanes. The exposition is not repeated, the development section is terse, and the recapitulation abbreviated. The movement is brought to a close with a powerfully, impassioned coda. This all gives a rather overwhelming effect. In the short Presto non assai the violin and cello are muted, it is more an intermezzo than a scherzo. The Andante grazioso is serene and has a mellow theme. Just like the second movement, it ends rather abruptly. The urgent theme of the Finale brings us back to seriousness, and although the mode switches from C Minor to C Major near the end, the passion and hectic drama are maintained all the way. The finish can even be called aggressive. This is a very muscular work, but also true chamber music, not a symphony masking as a trio. Brahms earlier piano trios were written in 1854 and 1882; the First Piano Trio is a lyrical and spacious work, Brahms first published chamber music written when he was just twenty years old, while the mature Second Piano Trio forms a pair with the Third Trio, but warm and expansive where the Third Trio is taut and dramatic.
Recording listened to: The Borodin Trio on Chandos (Complete Piano Trios).



16. Christian Sinding, Piano Trio No 2 in A Minor Op 64 (1902)
Christian Sinding (1856-1941) was a Norwegian composer, just one generation younger than Edvard Grieg. He studied with Jadassohn and Reinecke in Leipzig and always maintained a cosmopolitan, Romantic style - he was not a folklorist like Grieg. In 1896, Sinding wrote a highly effective piano piece, Frühlingsrauschen, that made him rich, but unfortunately has blotted out the rest of his legacy. The Second Piano Trio is generally seen as one of Sinding's best chamber works. It has a general Nordic mood and broadly flowing melodies, which are frequently modulated. The Allegro con brio has a heroic nature. The piano part is brilliant and virtuoso, so much that - as the strings also often play in unison - it almost becomes a mini piano concerto. After the lyrical second movement follows a finale where the mood finally turns to major. The trio concludes with a glorious and satisfying coda.
Recording listened to: Ilona Prunyi, piano, Andras Kiss, violin, amd Tamas Koo, cello, on Marco Polo (with Third Piano Trio).

17. Charles Ives, Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1904-1911)
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was an American modernist composer, whose music was largely ignored during his lifetime, although today he has become a sort of "cult composer" (see my post on Ives and other cult composers). Besides two string quartets and four violin sonatas, the piano trio is Ives' major chamber music work. It is meant to reflect the time the composer spent at Yale University, from which he graduated in 1898. The short first movement recalls a lecture given by an old philosophy professor who keeps repeating himself. The second movement, suggesting the “games and antics by the students on a holiday afternoon,” is densely polytonal, a pastiche of borrowed popular songs. The lyrical last movement, which is by far the longest, has a gentle rocking melody, growing into light, syncopated sections between the piano and strings. At one time, it quotes a song Ives had written in 1896 for the Yale Glee Club (it was rejected). And the coda quotes Thomas Hastings’ “Rock of Ages” in the cello, ending the movement with Ives’ characteristic roots in American folk music. Ives' piano trio, together with his string quartets and violin sonatas, provided an important foundation for later American chamber composition in the 20th century.
Recording listened to: Ronan Lefkowitz, Violin, Yo-yo Ma, Cello, and Gilbert Kalish, Piano, on Sony Classical (with chamber music by Bernstein, Kirchner and Gershwin under the title "Made in America").


18. Maurice Ravel, Piano Trio in A Minor (1914)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was born in a Basque town near Biarritz in southern France and studied music at the Paris Conservatoire. He developed a style of great clarity, incorporating elements of Baroque and Neo-Classicism; as a perfectionist, he worked slowly and left relatively few works. He wrote seven chamber music works. The Piano Trio was written in the summer of 1914 and Ravel worked at higher than usual speed to complete it so that he could join the army as a truck driver. The first movement's tempo is marked Modéré, a languidly unfolding, almost traditional sonata form. The main theme is based on the rhythm of a Basque dance. It has an unusual ostinato rhythm. The second movement is called “Pantoum,” a Malaysian verse form in which the second and fourth lines of each four-line stanza become the first and third lines of the next. Perhaps it refers to the way the two themes of this scherzo are developed in alternation. But it also sounds like something out of a different world. The third slow movement is a Passacaglia, the trio's center of gravity. The theme is played with variations over a constantly repeated bass line and leads to a powerful climax before dying away. The lively finale with shifting meters exploits the resources of the three players to the utmost and results in a brilliant coda.
Recording listened to: The Arden Trio on Delos (with Second Piano Trio by Saint-Saens).


19. Guy Ropartz, Piano Trio in A Minor (1918)
Guy Ropartz (1864-1955) studied at the Paris Conservatory under Dubois and Massenet, and organ with César Franck. His musical style was influenced by Claude Debussy and César Franck, and he enjoyed a long career as teacher and conductor. Ropartz was born in Brittany and strongly identified with the Breton cultural renaissance. His compositions include symphonic music, religious music, and also numerous chamber works, such as six string quartets and three violin sonatas. The spirited and substantial Piano Trio of 1918 starts with a poetic movement in moderate tempo. By contrast, the Scherzo is an energetic outdoor dance. The third movement is a song without words leading straight into the finale, which opens with tolling bells on the piano launching another vigorous, folk-inflected main theme. This piano trio reflects the war years in its often troubled and anguished atmosphere.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Stanislas on Timpani (with Fourth String Quartet etc.).


20. Heitor Villa-Lobos, Piano Trio No. 3 (1918)
The Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is the best-known and most significant Latin American composer to date. He wrote more than 2,000 works, including numerous orchestral, chamber, instrumental and vocal works, and was influenced by both Brazilian folk music and by stylistic elements from the European classical tradition. He was mostly self-taught; in 1917 he met Diagilev on tour in Brazil, and also Darius Milhaud, who introduced him to the music of Debussy and Satie. In the 1920s, Villa-Lobos stayed for several years in Paris, where he met such luminaries as Edgard Varèse, Pablo Picasso, Leopold Stokowski and Aaron Copland. By the time Villa-Lobos wrote his Third Piano Trio in 1918, he had begun the process of integrating his Brazilian heritage with European classical techniques. The first movement is dominated by a theme of Brazilian provenance first announced by the cello, a motif that will reappear in the other movements as well. A lyrical second movement is followed by two movements of "Brazilian modernity" - aggressive rhythms, mysterious melismas, and plenty of vibrant energy.
Recording listened to: Artistrio on Masters of Art (with Piano Trio No. 1). 

21. Robert Fuchs, Piano Trio No 3 in F-sharp Minor Op 115
(1921; for violin, viola and piano)
Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) attended the University of Vienna Conservatory and became himself a professor there in 1875. He was a famous teacher who counted Mahler, Sibelius, Hugo Wolf, Franz Schmidt, Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker among his students. He lived a quiet life in Vienna and did little to promote his own compositions, perhaps a reason why these are so little known. Besides symphonic and choral works, he concentrated on chamber music, including four string quartets, two piano quartets, six violin sonatas and two cello sonatas. He also wrote three piano trios, two in the normal instrumentation, plus the present one, his last, for piano with violin and viola instead of cello. Initially influenced by Brahms, around 1900 Fuchs' musical language became somewhat more harsh, with complex counterpoint. His harmonic language also changed and we find an interesting combination of post-Romantic elements with 19th century effusion. His melodies have a typical Austrian character. Although there is some melancholy too, the Third Piano Trio basically is a deliciously dance-like work, like a 19th c. waltz hard in retrospect. It is in four movements.
Recording listened to: Guilio Plotino, violin, Claudio Cavaletti, viola, and Enrico Maria Polimanti, paino, on Brilliant Classics (with Violin Sonata etc.). 

22. Gabriel Fauré, Piano Trio in D Minor Op 120 (1923)
Although Gabriel Fauré wrote two piano quartets and also two piano quintets, he composed only one piano trio, in 1923 when he was already in his seventy-eight year. He undertook the work at the prompting of his publisher, Jacques Durand, and first set about writing a work for clarinet, cello and piano, before turning to the more usual instrumentation. It is a work of great depth and vitality. Fauré managed to pack more musical content in its 17 minutes than most other composers in works twice or thrice as long. It is a work of restraint that develops gradually, like an organ improvisation. The opening movement is based on two long-breathed melodies, developed and extended as the movement takes its course. Both melodies are characteristic of Fauré, in a musical language familiar from his songs. The slow second movement - which was the first movement of the trio Fauré wrote - is an extended, song-like meditation on three themes. It entrusts the first theme to violin and cello, with accompanying chords from the piano. After so much lyricism, the strenuous third movement, which combines scherzo and finale, comes as a sort of surprise. After a repeated motif, like a call to order, an accented, rustic dance follows, with much scope for virtuoso piano work. This is one of the finest trios ever written.
Recording listened to: Members Parrenin Quartet with Jean-Philippe Collard, piano, on EMI Classics (with String Quartet Op. 121)



23. Aaron Copland, Piano Trio "Vitebsk" (1929)
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was an American composer, teacher, and conductor who was instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition. He studied, among others, with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Copland is in the first place famous for his symphonic music, but he also wrote several interesting chamber works. The Piano Trio is a single movement work. The title refers to the birthplace of a Jewish playwright, in whose play figures the Jewish folk song (a solemn chant) on which Copland based his trio. At that time, Copland was fresh from his studies with Madame Boulanger and very much in an avant-gardistic mood - the same period saw the creation of sparse, often strident works like the Piano Variations (1930) and the Symphonic Ode (1927 - 29). In the trio he makes, for example, extensive use of quartertones. The trio is more specifically Jewish than American in style (but Copland's only work to be so) and comprises a number of contrasted meditations on the central folk music. It was Copland's goal to portray Jewish life in the shtetl (village) under harsh conditions; accordingly, the harmony and texture have a spiky quality that gives the work its distinctive sound. Before the folk theme is introduced on the cello, the opening section poses quarter-tone passages in the strings against stark, unyielding piano chords to call to mind the shofar, the ceremonial ram's horn blown in Jewish services (this probably is an instrument like the Japanese horagai, a shell trumpet used by ascetic mountain priests, and I can testify that the timbre exactly fits!). The quartertones and dissonances in the trio create a fully atonal effect. A powerful and challenging work.
Recording listened to: Orchester-Akademie des Berliner Philharmonischen Orchesters on Torofon (with Sextet, Violin Sonata and Duo for Flute and Piano).


24. Bohuslav Martinu, Cing Pièces Brèves, Piano Trio No. 1 (1930)
The prolific Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) studied under Suk and worked as a violinist, before moving to Paris in 1823 at the age of 33 as his modernist style did not suit the ears of his countrymen. In Paris, he became a disciple of Albert Roussel, who himself had just turned to neo-classical forms of expression. Under his guidance, Martinu developed a highly personal style, which retained links with the folk idioms of his Czech homeland. Martinu composed in almost every genre and left a large body of chamber music. His First Piano Trio, subtitled "Cinq pièces brèves," comprises a series of five short, contrasting character pieces, in a powerfully athletic style, with vivid neo-Baroque motor-rhythms, closely-wrought counterpoint and a bitter-sweet harmonic palette. Most movements are medium-fast to fast; only the second movement is a slow cantabile, in which a warmly expressive duet in the strings, unaccompanied, is commented upon by the piano in quiet chordal passages. This brilliantly scored piano trio gives an impression of "steely efficiency." After he had moved to New York, in the early fifties, Martinu would write two more piano trios.
Recording listened to: Prague Trio on Music Vars (complete piano trios).

25. Dmitri Shostakovich, Piano Trio No. 2 Op. 67 (1944)
Shostakovich' Second Piano Trio was, like his Second String Quartet and Eight Symphony, composed at one of the darkest periods of WWII. It is dedicated to the memory of Ivan Sollertinsky, a talented musicologist and close friend of the composer who had died in a Nazi concentration camp during that year. The trio thus fits in the Russian tradition of the "funeral piano trio," intended as an expression of deep sorrow. The opening of the first movement is very original: a plaintive melody is played con sordino on the cello, in a very haunting way. This is the so-called "Jewish theme," brought here as a shrill and tortured voice. The Scherzo has an air of forced jollity, with loud, emphatic themes and intentionally crude scoring. The third movement is a passacaglia with six statements of the theme (five are in fact variations), built into an elegiac duet for the strings. The formal procedure here is similar to that used by Ravel in the slow movement of his trio. The rondo finale returns, with its patterns of lively dance rhythms, to the style of the Scherzo, but with a harsher mood of bitterness and despair. It has been called the "merging into one image of the mocking executioner and his defenseless victim." With its extravagant sonorities, this piano trio strains at the limits of the chamber style, but it also demonstrates a near-classical equilibrium between form, content and instrumentation. (Shostakovich composed one more piano trio, but that is a youth work written in 1923 when he was 17.)
Recording listened to: The Borodin Trio on Chandos (with Piano Quintet).
[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. Special mention should be made of the interesting study The Piano Trio, Its History, Technique, and Repertoire by Basil Smallman (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1990). 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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