The Cleveland Museum of Art The Berlin Piano Trio
Wednesday, April 23, 1986 Gartner Auditorium
Horst Göbe, piano Hans Maile, violin René Forest, violoncello
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1 Allegro Largo assai ed expressivo Presto
Boris Blacher (1903-1975): Trio (1970) Allegro Andante I Andante II Presto
Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Trio in B-flat major, Op. 99 Allegro moderato Andante un poco mosso Scherzo: Allegro Rondo: Allegro vivace
Program Notes by Judith Eckelmeyer
Beethoven's Piano Trio, Op. 70, No. 1, his fifth venture in the genre, is a product of the year 1808. The fifth symphony had been completed at the end of the previous year; the sixth symphony, in so many ways its complement, was finished in Heiligenstadt (a northern suburb of Vienna) in the summer of 1808, and Beethoven turned immediately to the piano trios of Op. 70. These were dedicated to Countess Marie von Erdödy and published in Leipzig in the following year.
Typical biographies of Beethoven have very little to say about the Op. 70 Trios. There are occasional indications on recordings that the first of the two, the D-major, was informally nicknamed "The Ghost;" there is no evidence that the name has been bestowed on the work either by the composer or the publisher. But the D-major Trio has much of interest that both supports the nickname--whatever its source--and, as usual with Beethoven's music, takes it well beyond the programmatic implications to greater compositional significance.
The first of the Trio's three movements is in the expected "sonata" form, but contains several noteworthy twists. The first is a rhythmic surprise in the very opening phrase which is given as a single-line melody produced simultaneously in four octaves by the violin, cello, and piano. Although we would clearly expect the sense of three beats in the measure, this opening melody is so constructed that it sounds a very fast three, or at best as if it were in 6/8, with two strong main beats in each measure divided into three parts, like a good gigue. At the end of this phrase the second twist occurs in the harmony. Beethoven has set up the key of D major in his brilliant unison opening, and at the end of the phrase begins an upward scale passage with the first three notes of the scale. But the third, concluding note is "wrong!" And the next pitch works out of the "wrong" note to take the ear even farther from D. The next phrase begins with all the "right" elements--a sense of the actual triple meter of the movement, and a return to D major--but for a brief instant this seems wrong! Once the ear catches up, the remainder of the movement offers no serious harmonic or rhythmic misdirections. There is, in fact, a relatively straightforward charm of interplay among the three instruments and a relative lightness effected by the usually single-line activity of the piano as opposed to "Beethovenian" thick chords against the two string voices.
The second movement is perhaps the musical object of the "Ghost" nickname. It is in D minor and built almost entirely on the two melodic ideas expressed at its beginning: the first by the strings, the second by the piano. Within the movement, Beethoven displays superb agility in reworking and extending the two basic melodies without tedium. He also includes extensive use of one of the most characteristic harmonic structures of the emerging Romantic movement--the so-called diminished seventh, with which he conveys a range of effects from sorrow to horror to suspense to deep mystery. Dark trills low in the piano toward the end of sections add an unsettling dissonance and shuddering against the two strings. The blood-curdling descending piano line close to the end of the movement against the strings is the stuff of later programmatic essays into horror music.
The concluding sonata-form movement is almost comic relief after the intense second movement. It, too, has a bit of harmonic deception at the end of the first phrase, but we seem to be cushioned for it in Beethoven's fuller harmonic setting of the opening here. In this movement, the four-bar regularity and unambiguous rhythm suggest a dance, but one can also hear a foot-tapping allusion to the fifth symphony's famous rhythmic motto. The piano is given a few moments of cadenza-like light solo work, and the violin and cello several times dialogue in the same range as if, like Kipling's hedgehog and tortoise, who mutated into the armadillo, attempting to fool us into mistaking who they are.
Boris Blacher was born in 1903 in China and moved to Berlin in 1922; he studied architecture, mathematics, and composition there. After composing and arranging in Berlin, he became "director" of a composition class in Dresden. His teaching career was interrupted by the war, but he resumed his professorial role in 1948 again in Berlin, where he remained active in various artistic posts until 1971. He died there in 1975.
Blacher's style was not strongly influenced at first by the main-stream atonal and serial composers but rather more by the witty and playful styles of Satie and Milhaud, Stravinsky's rhythmic elements, and jazz. From about 1948 he "played" with the twelve-tone process and evolved "variable meters" as systematic changes of meter from about 1950. He eventually employed not only full serial techniques but electronic devices as well in his compositions.
Horst Göbel commented (through Felix Ganz's translation) that the Trio, lasting eleven minutes, is a late work of Blacher and as such is seen as "the culmination and synthesis of a life-long process of compositional refinement and experience." It is dedicated to the Berlin Piano Trio. The first movement, in "variable meters," is "partially virtuosic and partially expressive in character. The end of the movement is best described as 'wise graciousness.'" The two middle movements are the same tempo and length, and are "based on the same musical materials. They are mirror images of each other, but are not recognized as such by the listener...The second andante appears in retrograde; the piano retains its previous roles but violin and cello exchange parts. A tender musical weaving appears, in which 'soft melodies amble around dreamily.'" The last movement is virtuosic, metrically complex, and contains 1920s jazz ideas. Coherence results from a master plan of "a skilled musical architect who expects of the performers not only technical perfection but juggling of mathematical problems as well. The piece concludes somewhat unexpectedly in a quiet, unsentimental manner, which is typical of Blacher's basic human characteristics."
Schubert's Piano Trio in B-flat is most recently believed to have been written in 1827 or 1828, the year of his tragically early death, but earlier than its companion piece in E-flat. The B-flat Trio, however, was published about eight years after Schubert's death and at that time was designated "Op. 99." Unlike Beethoven's work of 1808, the two Schubert Trios were private works, premiered by friends of the composer in a chamber setting. The B-flat Trio has four movements and is considerably more substantial in piano material, range coverage, dynamic activity, and harmonic digressions than Beethoven's Op. 70. In these regards Schubert seems to have been writing in a very different framework than his great idol had twenty years earlier. Not only was he fully aware of the realms that Beethoven had trod in his later works, but he had in his own right, unknowingly, been creating what were soon to be recognized as signal works which that arch-Romantic, Robert Schumann, would unhesitatingly acclaim as a "cherished inheritance," in a style to which Schumann would respond as a critic, but more as a fellow artist. Indeed, it was through Schumann's efforts that many of Schubert's works, including the B-flat Trio, were given their first public performances, from 1836 on.
In comments about the two Trios, Schumann held that B-flat to be more "passive, lyrical, and feminine," These descriptive terms need to be rethought for our time, of course. There is no doubt as to the sunny disposition that seems to pervade this work, but there is also a wonderful high energy created by conflicting rhythms of beats divided two against three, harmonic elements such as the striking Neapolitan chords, the extensive modulations to "unrelated" keys, metrical fluctuations from 2/4 to 3/2 and back again, and dynamic changes that move from pianissimo to fortissimo with no warning at all. This is far from the enervated image conjured up by Schumann's terms!
The first movement begins with a rising violin arpeggio underlined by pulsating repeated piano chords; the sweep of melody in all three instruments is quite characteristic of the soaring movement. The second movement begins with a more contained, slow-paced melody first presented in the cello; this rides over a gently rocking accompanying figure. In the course of the movement there are exquisite passages of graceful counterpoint achieved by all three instruments. The vigorous third movement contains a much simplified trio, in which the melody moves generally one note to a measure. The fourth movement begins with dance-like phrasing and rhythm but is the most varied in content of the entire work: the metrical, harmonic, and dynamic facets of the Trio reach their peak in this extraordinary movement.