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When in the second half of the 18th century the trio for piano, violin, and cello evolved from the Baroque trio sonata (which was virtually always performed on four instruments – for example, two violins, keyboard, and cello), the piano’s string companions often were treated as optional. Indeed, the earliest works by the godfather of the form, Joseph Haydn, were called: “Sonatas for pianoforte with accompaniment of violin and violoncello,” and in fact, even the last of his some 45 piano trios still finds the cello reduced to doubling the keyboard’s bass (a very weak range in the instruments of that day), and the violin allotted a nominal amount of thematic material. Mozart began somewhat to correct the inequity, and Beethoven, not surprisingly, effected a proper balance, if not invariably a conventional chamber music texture.
The latter observation is made specifically in relation to the Bonn master’s “Archduke” Trio, for with that work was born the trio as quasi-concerto, a technically demanding showpiece for three. This description applies equally to two piano trios by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), with the first edging out the second somewhat in brilliance. But both are compositions in which superior musicality is joined in happy union with instrumental dazzle. The Trio No. 2, written in 1845, a few years after No. 1, gives further evidence – if any were needed – that Mendelssohn was a wonderfully predictable composer. For whatever medium he wrote he easily summoned the large quantities of elegance and flair that were intrinsic to his nature. Thus, in the genre of chamber music he did not have to strive to be more aristocratic than in forms that are not as dependent upon that characteristic. He began very early to reveal true distinction in music for small instrumental forces: at the tender age of 16 he produced a masterpiece – the incomparable Octet for Strings. In that the work displays a staggering precociousness in all compositional elements, it must be regarded as the piece that first fully proclaimed the composer’s rare gifts.
The soil in which the Octet’s seed was nurtured could not have been more conducive to its growth. The youth’s early training was carefully guided. Sunday musicales in his well-to-do parents’ home were occasions on which he not only heard a variety of music, but on which his own compositions were first performed, giving him an opportunity for self-appraisal such as few teen-aged composers have. It was in this atmosphere of musical stimulation amidst the warmth of the family circle that young Felix prepared himself, through a number of fluent but undistinguished compositions, for the remarkable Octet and all that was to follow. This close-knit family circle included Felix’s cello-playing brother, Paul – who, it is safe to say, aroused the composer’s interest in the baritone string and for whom he wrote his first cello sonata – as well as the violinist Ferdinand David, who was the dedicatee of the E-minor Violin Concerto. With his keen understanding of the two string instruments, and as a pianist of exceptional abilities, Mendelssohn was fully equipped to compose trios that are wholly idiomatic for the three instruments.
Composed in 1845, a year after the Violin Concerto, the C-minor Trio has all the solid craftsmanship of its concerto predecessor if not its lofty, irresistible lyricism.
The first movement begins quietly with the announcement by the piano of a main theme notable for its stern but agitated demeanor and its flexibility due to its non-melodic character. The fluid theme is announced by the piano, repeated almost exactly by the strings, and then treated throughout the movement in all manner of imitative and contrapuntal ways, often fragmented in a give-and-take between keyboard and strings. A lyric second theme brings typical Mendelssohnian warmth to a movement whose length somewhat weakens its essentially strong profile.
The slow movement has a gentle lyric quality that makes it at least a cousin to so many of the composer’s Songs without Words for piano. There are many compositional felicities along its placid course, and it remains for the quicksilver Scherzo that follows to give the Trio a major kick in the temperament. Here Mendelssohn is in his element as the purveyor of his glorious Midsummer Night’s Dream fantasy and rakishness. Speed and technical tautness are of the essence as the three protagonists pursue the dazzling virtuosity of the breathless events that bristle with excitement.
The finale, marked Allegro appassionato (one of the composer’s favorite directives), is less impassioned than it is emphatic and serious, incidentally with a first theme whose first few notes found their way into the Scherzo of Brahms’ Piano Sonata in F minor. As a thematic surprise, Mendelssohn introduces a personalized version of a Lutheran chorale tune, which adds a strong measure of dignity to an ensemble scheme that is exceptionally virtuosic and sonorously extroverted. Did the religious interjection cause a turn from C minor to C major toward the end of the Trio? Perhaps. At any rate, the race to the finish line is filled with fiery pianistics and soaring stringistics (?) and a fortissimo final cadence worthy of a concerto.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.