PROGRAM NOTES: CHAMBER MUSIC CONCERT (5/12/04)
Ilya Itin (Piano), Mischa Dacic (Piano), Ariana Kim (Violin),
Vesna Gruppman (Violin), Mark Kosower (Cello)
Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Opus 99
Piano Trio in B Major, Opus 8
Piano Trio in G Minor, Opus 3
By Lawrence Budmen
The chamber music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) has become an indispensable part of the repertoire. Yet these intimate works were all created in the last nine years of the composer's tragically brief life. Schubert had played the viola. For him chamber music represented a natural form of artistic self expression. His two piano trios date from his final year (1828). Starting in 1820, the apartment of Schubert's friend Josef von Spaun became the scene of informal concerts - Schubertiads. The final Schubertiad on January 28, 1828 - a celebration of Von Spaun's engagement to Franziska von Ehrenwert - was the occasion for the premiere of the "Piano Trio in B-flat," D.898 (performed by Schubert's friends - pianist Karl Maria von Bocklet, violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, and cellist Josef Lincke). Like Mozart's divertimentos, Schubert's trio was intended as entertainment music to be enjoyed by performers and listeners alike. Although composed in 1827, the B-flat Trio was not published (by Diabelli) until 1836 - eight years after the composer's death. Writing about the trio in 1836, Robert Schumann noted: "One glance at it and the troubles of our human existence disappear and the whole world is fresh and bright again…The first movement is a thing of grace, intimate…The Adagio is a blissful dream state, a pulsating flow of exquisitely human emotion…To sum up the Trio in B-flat is feminine, lyrical." The opening movement - Allegro moderato - has two contrasting themes. The exposition and development are unusually lengthy (typical of late Schubert). The Andante un poco mosso has a dreamy principal theme, introduced by the cello. A more agitated middle section leads to the return of main theme (with a different accompaniment). The witty Scherzo (Allegro) has a waltz-like trio section. The concluding Rondo (Allegro vivace) features a jaunty main theme. Schubert masterfully contrasts the tone colors of the piano and string instruments.
While many composers progress from small scale works to larger ones, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) seems to have gone in the opposite direction. Brahms's 24 chamber music scores represent a mere quarter of the works he composed in that intimate genre. (He destroyed 20 string quartets before he permitted the first to be published.) Brahms always agonized over composing in the shadow of Beethoven. Brahms considered that master's symphonies and chamber music to be supreme. When his scores did not meet his relentlessly high standards, Brahms preferred to burn the manuscripts. The "Trio in No.1 in B Major," Opus 8 was the first of Brahms's chamber works to be published (in 1854 by Schumann's publishers Breitkopf and Hartel). The composer revised the work in 1890. (Strangely, the original version received its premiere in America. The first performance took place on November 27, 1855 in New York.) In 1890 Brahms wrote his musician friend Julius Otto Grimm "Do you happen to recall a "Trio in B Major" from our younger days? …wouldn't you be keen to hear it now, after I've - well, not stuck a wig on it but at least combed its hair a little." In Brahms's revision, the trio emerged one third shorter. Only the Scherzo remained untouched. In 1890 Brahms began refining his body of work. His revision of the piano trio has an inexorable forward momentum. The revised score had its premiere in Budapest on January 10, 1890. In the opening Allegro con brio, the piano introduces both the first and second subjects, which expand to the strings and build to a grand climax. A warmly sentimental waltz theme takes center stage in the trio section of the Scherzo. The Adagio is tenderly lyrical. Here the string textures are rich and intense. The Allegro finale begins with a typically Brahmsian theme on the cello. A more agitated second theme appears in the piano. The two themes are developed and build to an affirmative coda.
After the premiere of his "Concerto for Piano, Violin, and String Quartet" in 1892, Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) made this entry in his diary: "Never have I had such a success! I can't get over it…I feel light and joyful, something I haven't been for a long time. It's done me good and given me courage. I believe I'll work with more confidence in the future." The composer was thirty seven years old, had a sizable catalogue of works, yet was practically unknown. In order to understand the euphoria of his diary entry, we must understand the composer's frustration during the preceding decade. To please his parents Chausson had studied law and began a legal career in 1877. Two years later he left that profession and entered the class of Jules Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire. He also studied with Cesar Franck, the dominant musical personality in France between 1870 and 1890. He greatly revered Franck and Richard Wagner. His circle of friends in Paris included Mallarme, Debussy, Albeniz, and Alfred Cortot. Massenet encouraged him to enter the competition of the Prix de Rome. His lack of success at the 1881 competition brought about a musical and psychological change in him. This resulted in the composition of the beautiful "Piano Trio in G Minor," Opus 3. The score was written during the summer of 1881 in Monthovon, Switzerland. While the influence of Massenet, Franck, and Wagner was initially strong, Chausson imbued his scores with a highly personal lyricism and nobility. The G Minor Trio is a wonderfully colorful score. Chausson's piano writing was orchestral in scope. The composer was always a self critical perfectionist. His intellectual rigor and formal clarity attest to his mastery. Chausson's chamber music scores are his finest creations. A major revival of these rarely performed masterpieces is long overdue.