Trio in E-flat Major, D. 897, Op. 148 (Notturno)
Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1898)

So much attention is lavished on Schubert’s twin trio masterpieces, the B-flat Major Trio D. 898 (published as Op. 99) and its E-flat Major sibling, D. 929 (Op. 100) that many chamber music lovers are even aware that he composed another movement for trio about the same time.  The lovely Notturno in E-flat, D. 897 was probably intended as the slow movement to the B-flat Major trio, but Schubert evidently discarded it in favor of the familiar Andante un poco mosso of that beloved piece. 

While this Adagio does not aspire to the sublime heights of the larger composition, it has its own shimmering beauty.  The music historian Alfred Einstein notes a thematic kinship to the Andante molto in Schubert’s Duo-Fantasy for violin and piano, D. 934, of December 1827.  The more striking resemblance, however, is to the slow movement of his magnificent String Quintet in C Major, D. 956.  As biographer Brian Newbould has noted, the sustained melodies of the two string instruments, complemented by the piano’s emphasis in its outer ranges, foreshadows the texture of the Quintet. 

The ternary form is most notable for its bracing middle section.  Schubert mitigates the muscularity of a march-like dotted rhythm with busy triplets that seem borrowed from the piano Impromptus.  The static harmony of his gentle theme takes on new intensity when we hear it again, now embellished by piano filigree, and modulated to the astonishing key of E Major.  The chromatic journey back to the home key of E-flat is vintage Schubert, as is the recurrence of the middle section in C Major.  

For most music lovers, the term Nocturne conjures Frédéric Chopin, whose 21 Nocturnes elevated a 19th-century salon miniature to the realm of great art.  (Some critics believe that Chopin’s late Barcarolle, Op. 60 is the greatest nocturne ever written.)  Although Chopin excelled in writing expressive, elegant nocturnes, he was not the first to do so.  The piano nocturne was pioneered by the Irish composer John Field (1782-1837), a student of Muzio Clementi who later settled in St. Petersburg.  Between 1814 and 1835, Field wrote 18 examples that established the Nocturne as an important category of Romantic character pieces.  Most of them featured a lyrical melody above a broken-chord accompaniment. 

As it happens, Nocturnes had an established history long before Field and Chopin borrowed it for piano music.  In the 18th century, nocturne – or, more often, the Italian notturno – was an alternative term for a multi-movement instrumental work intended as entertainment music.  Mozart used the term notturno interchangeably with divertimento, serenata, and cassation.  The alternate terms nocturne and notturno arose because such works were generally for performance in the evening. 

The title Notturno is unique among Schubert’s work titles - and apocryphal.  It was probably assigned by the publisher, Anton Diabelli & Company of Vienna, when the movement was published posthumously in 1845 as Opus 148.  Listeners must decide for themselves whether it connects with the 18th-century tradition of evening entertainment music, or the Romantic genre of lyrical character piece. 

Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87    
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

As he approached the age of 50, Brahms was well past the straitened times of his youth.  These were among his most fruitful years.  The economic security that attended his musical prominence and respected reputation led to an outpouring of musical masterpieces: the Second Symphony, Opus 73, in 1878; the Violin Concerto in 1879; the G major Violin Sonata, Opus 78 in 1880; the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures, both 1881; and the second Piano Concerto, Opus 83, in 1882.  

The Piano Trio Opus 87 reflects the fullness and richness of Brahms's life at this time.  He composed the first movement in March 1880, completing the balance of the work in June 1882, while on holiday in Bad Ischl.  In its respect for traditional form – both outer movements are fully developed sonata structures – the trio wears the mantle of the 18th century.  Yet the music invokes the passion and romantic fantasy of the 19th century.

That Brahms loved chamber music is apparent in the prominence of 24 chamber works among his 122 extant opus numbers.  Sixteen of those involve piano.  The composer was deeply tied to the piano, and indeed composed many of his most passionate early works for the instrument, as well as his most intimate, heartfelt late solo miniatures.  Curiously, in this Piano Trio, he endows the two stringed instruments with the lion's share of the melodic material.  It is a pattern discernible throughout the work, but one particularly noticeable in the first movement.  The piano never plays the opening theme until its concluding statement at the close of the movement.  The thematic material is highly idiomatic for the string players, and Brahms takes full advantage of the possibilities for instrumental tone color.  

For his slow movement, Brahms wrote one of those magnificent sets of variations that elevate his music to the sublime.  His clarity of structure is worthy of Mozart, and makes a nice counterpoint to the Schubert trio movement that opened this evening’s program.  His harmonic imagination matches and exceeds the splendor of the variations in the early String Sextet in G Major, Opus 18.  The scherzo, an eerie and gripping display of restless tone color, is exceptionally difficult to execute with the appropriate fleetness of touch.  Its mystery is only partially tempered by the tender trio section, which Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music likens to "a huge white cloud-bank."

As with all the compositions Brahms permitted to survive, this one is fully mature, a closely knit whole with no loose ends.  His friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, said of Opus 87:  "I cannot experience and execute this music other than with my entire self.  It acts upon me like a force of nature."  Even more persuasive is the composer's own assessment, since we know how self-critical he was.  Fully aware of the vast strides he had made in his command of chamber music since his early B major Trio, Opus 8 (1854), he wrote with well-deserved pride to his publisher Fritz Simrock:  "You have not so far had such a beautiful trio from me and very probably have not published one to match it in the last ten years."  If anything, these confident words are an understatement, and we are the fortunate beneficiaries of his superlative achievement.  
Piano Trio in A Minor      
Maurice Ravel (1874-1937)

Ravel was fascinated by the conundrum of composing for piano and strings, instruments he believed to be inherently incompatible.  For him, the challenge was to compose unified music for this combination of essentially unlike instruments.  The trio he wrote is consistent among its four movements in grace, the family of melodic ideas, and brilliance of technique.  Ravel’s secondary objective was to somehow incorporate the music of his native Basque country.  Both goals were satisfied by this exquisite Trio.  It is widely considered to be Ravel’s finest essay in chamber music, surpassing even the popular early String Quartet.     

The ideas for a Piano Trio had first occurred to Ravel as early as 1908; however, the work that concludes this program was not finished until 1914.  Ravel had returned to it in 1913, but his labors were interrupted several times during the next year because of travel to performances of other compositions.  When war erupted in August, 1914, Ravel was determined to enlist and defend his country.  He hastened to complete the Trio, only to be informed that his small stature, a history of frail health, and advanced age rendered him ineligible for military service.  (At almost 40, he was considered too old.)  It is ironic that so lovely and refined a musical work should grow out of such anxious and politically fraught circumstances.

Ravel had abandoned an early piano concerto that was to have been based on Basque themes. Some evidence exists that themes from this proposed concerto found their way into the Trio.  The composer described the opening theme of his first movement, a modified sonata form, as "Basque in color."  The graceful rhythmic pattern established in the opening measures permeates the movement, which is a modified sonata form.

Pantoum, the unique title of the second movement, derives from the Malayan verse form panttun, in which the second and fourth lines of one quatrain are repeated in the next quatrain as the first and third lines; it was a form favored by the poets Baudelaire and Verlaine.  Possibly it reflects a characteristic French fascination with Far Eastern culture--and in this case, rhythms--that may be traced to the International Parisian Exposition of 1889.  An exact musical parallel to the poetic technique is unlikely; however, Ravel certainly exchanged musical material ingeniously between the strings and the piano.  The movement, which fulfills the scherzo function, goes at a whirlwind pace and is extremely difficult to perform.

In the Passacaille, Ravel pays tribute to Baroque form, much as he would in Le tombeau de Couperin.  Though this is a brief slow movement, its spaciousness and hymn-like calm lend it a dignified air.  The flashy conclusion soon dispels this impression.  5/4 and 7/4 time – both characteristic of Basque music – alternate in the Final; trills, rapid arpeggios, double-stops and other technical fireworks abound in the string parts.  The piano part reclaims the high profile it established in the first movement to compete for center stage once again in the Final.  The music is exciting and complex, driving to an exultant conclusion in A Major.
A criticism sometimes leveled at this imaginative work is that its daunting difficulty for all three performers makes it almost impossible for the amateur ensemble to attempt.  Though its virtuosic demands are exceptional, they are not solely for show.  Ravel succeeded in composing a trio with considerable musical substance.  He also endowed it with a philosophical, noble quality that emanates from the work.  The Piano Trio has earned its prominent place in the chamber music literature.

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2018