Tempting Trios programme notes

Add a little spice and sweetness to your March, and blow those winter doldrums out of the water!

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Extra B – Tempting Trios

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) – Piano Trio in E-flat Major
Little is known about the circumstances surrounding the composition of Schubert’s E-flat Major Piano Trio – even the exact date is uncertain, although it is generally agreed that the work was completed during the fall 1827. This Trio, however, figures prominently in the events of Schubert’s last year. It was first performed on December 26, 1827 at a subscription concert given by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Vienna’s leading violinist and a good friend of Beethoven’s.

On January 28, 1828, Schubert had the Trio performed privately to celebrate the engagement of his close friend, Joseph von Spaun. According to Spaun, this evening was the last of the Schubertiades. The Trio then formed the centrepiece of Schubert’s one public concert, held on March 26, 1828, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death. (It would not be presented publicly again until January 30, 1829 – two months after Schubert’s own death – at a concert given by his friends to raise money for his monument in the Währing Cemetery.)

This Trio, along with its companion in B-flat, is among Schubert’s finest contributions to chamber music, bringing to a glorious conclusion the tradition of the Viennese piano trio which extends back through Beethoven to Mozart and Haydn. The first movement is one of the most dynamic Schubert ever wrote. Beginning in a brilliant explosion of energy, its course is dominated by riveting harmonic surprises. Even the subordinate theme has an unsettled nervousness to it, far removed from the lyrical repose such themes usually have in Schubert’s work.

In the ensuing Andante, the measured tread and haunting loneliness of the main theme conjures up the image of the wanderer so prevalent in early Romantic literature. Each time some comforting thought appears, it is answered by either bitterness or yearning. The Scherzo, in contrast, brings us into a world of pastoral innocence. The lilting main theme, played in a two-part canon between the piano and strings, has the sunny atmosphere of a Ländler, the folk predecessor of the waltz. (These rustic associations are reinforced by the trio, which suggests a peasant stamp dance.)

The long Finale also begins in an atmosphere of innocent joy; but in the midst of the celebrations the theme of the slow movement intrudes as an unsettling memory of grief. And although shaken off here, it returns again in the coda. This time, though, it is transformed in a particularly beautiful shift from minor to major, as if the theme had finally arrived at its destination of happiness.

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) – Verano Porteño
The Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla was one of the great masters of the tango. His innovative approach to the dance, which mixed contemporary trends in classical music and jazz with the tango traditions of the early twentieth century, created a new style, nuevo tango, that, although at first was resisted by more traditional tango composers, eventually carried the day.

Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata to Italian immigrant parents. He was a child prodigy on the bandoneón, an Argentinian type of button accordion, which he first took up in 1929 after the family had moved to New York. Following his return to Argentina in 1937, he became a member of various tango orchestras. He also took up studies in classical composition with Alberto Ginastera, the leading Argentinian composer of the time who exposed Piazzolla to the music of Stravinsky and Bartók.

His five years with Ginastera were followed by a year in Paris under the great teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau Conservatory from 1954 to 1955. It was Boulanger who encouraged him to continue to develop his unique voice as a composer of tangos. Upon his return to Buenos Aires he founded a new tango orchestra – orquesta de cuerdos – for which he wrote in a more adventurous style than traditionally, thus breathing new life into the dance with the nuevo tango movement.

Verano porteño (Summer in Buenos Aires) from 1965 is one of his great tangos. It comes from a collection of four, Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas (the four seasons of Buenos Aires) that Piazzolla assembled from various tangos he had written. The collection aims to present a picture of Buenos Aires throughout the year.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) – Piano Trio in A Minor
Ravel’s Piano Trio stands at an important juncture in his life. He was working on it in the quiet seclusion of his summerhouse in St.-Jean-de-Luz in August 1914, when news of the outbreak of the First World War reached him. His life was immediately thrown into turmoil. The following war years were to prove a shattering experience, both mentally and physically which, along with the death of his beloved mother in 1917, ultimately affected his musical productivity.

Since Ravel wanted to finish the trio before applying for military service, he pushed himself hard, working, as he wrote to one friend, “with the lucidity and sureness of a madman.” By August 7, 1914 his task was completed and the realm of chamber music had been enriched with a great masterpiece.

As a whole, the work is characterized by fine detailed craftsmanship, depth and beauty of expression, a wonderful expert handling of all three instruments and above all delightful sonorities – the Dorian opening theme of the first movement shared between piano and the cello and violin in their high register, the dark opening of the Passacaille and the exhilarating trills of the Final are only a few instances that come to mind.

There are four movements. The first is cast in a free sonata form. The second is a lively Scherzo with a chorale-like Trio. Its title `Pantoum’ refers enigmatically to a form of Malaysian poetry. The dark grandeur of the third movement is overwhelming. It is constructed in a great arch, where the melodious Passacaille theme emerges from the depths in a great climax and then subsides. In stark contrast is the last movement with its airiness and excitement. The use of 5\4 and 7\4 metres may have been inspired by Basque music.

Dr Brian Black