A piano trio presents at least one basic problem to a composer. On the one hand, the chamber-music ideal values equality among the players. On the other, the massed sound of the violin and cello can't really compete against the piano certainly not the modern piano and, I suspect, the period fortepiano as well. Beethoven solves the problem in a unique way. His great piano trios actually involve four "players" – violinist, cellist, and the left and right hands of the pianist – and distribute interest equally among them. The increased independence of left and right hand results in a thinner piano sound, as well as greater interplay in the music.
The "Erzherzogtrio" ("Archduke" trio) represents a deserved high point in Beethoven's considerable output and usually gets the star treatment, as far as recordings go, with current Schwann entries including Gilels, Istomin, Richter, Rubinstein, Heifetz, Stern, Beaux Arts, Casals, and so on. The "Gassenhauer-Trio" (roughly translatable in this context as "pop-hit trio"), originally composed for clarinet rather than violin, apparently stands a bit off in the corner for that very reason, with fewer than half the commercial recordings of the "Archduke," most of which use the clarinet version.
Beethoven has become such a classic that we can easily forget the surprising newness of his music, especially his approach to form and texture. I remember in particular a live concert of the Missa Solemnis in New Orleans, a town not particularly literate in the classical repertoire and therefore fresh and honest in voicing its preferences. The piece actually irritated a sizeable portion of the audience, and I was glad to learn that Beethoven retained his power of shock and anger. Neither trio soars to the level of the Missa, but then very few works do. Nevertheless, each contains wonderful surprises.
The "Gassenhauer" Trio is a fairly "unbuttoned" work, with a bright and bouncy first movement, slow-variations second movement, and a finale based on a popular aria by a composer named Joseph Weigl. Despite the emotional congeniality, however, the first movement takes the longest time to find its harmonic feet. In fact, Beethoven continually undermines the nominal key of the movement (B Flat) with side trips up the harmonic Amazon. I note especially a surprising recurring enharmonic change, but even so the composer never hangs around one key for long. As soon as he stakes down a tonic, his next step skips over several counties in the circle of fifths. The main theme itself (A, beginning F – F# – G in the key of B Flat) implies harmonic ambiguity between B Flat Major and G tonal centers, with easy side-steps to C and F. With these harmonic stretches, Beethoven also pulls and pushes sonata form until it becomes something like a wax figure left in the heat. The second-subject group (B, beginning C – E – F in F) sounds more like a variant of the first-subject group, due to the prominent leading tone. We see a more familiar example of first- and second-subject twinship in the first movement of the later Fifth Symphony. In this trio, Beethoven switches from one group to another without any real development, just slight variants in different keys, until almost the end. After a very short development of both groups, he launches into a false recap of A and a true recap of B and ends with a short coda on what has been a very minor figure, now suddenly thrust into prominence. Beethoven pays here a kind of lip service to sonata form, but this is really something other. Ernest Newman points out Beethoven's pushing sonata to the breaking point in the late works. Nevertheless, we see it here in 1797. In fact, he did this pushing, stretching, and tearing apart throughout his career.
The cantabile slow movement plays the same sort of game with family resemblances among motifs. The finale, a set of nine variations on the Weigl theme, at first glance seem firmly in the tradition of the 18th-century arie variée, as opposed to the mighty structures Beethoven created in this form. Nevertheless, there is plenty of interest, especially in the later variations, when Beethoven starts to pull the theme apart and through the pieces to the various instruments. Here also we find the greatest independence of the parts. Often, just one player sounds or one hand of the pianist. Canonic, single-line entries emphasize the independence and, paradoxically, the unity of the ensemble. It's almost as when you immediately replay in your head the words someone speaks to you, and before they have finished simultaneous commentary on commentary, as it were. There's even a remarkable foreshadowing of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet finale (you'll recognize it immediately). The "Gassenhauer" is hardly a trinket (as the liner notes unfortunately imply).
In the "Archduke" Trio, we see almost all these principles and habits of composition worked out on the highest plane. The beginning motive never seems to want to settle this time, a thematic instability, if you will, rather than a harmonic one. In contrast to the "Gassenhauer," this work is almost all development, not of themes, but of little musical gestures that continually recombine into new and old songs. Throughout the trio, Beethoven almost obsessively explores all combinations of the instruments violin solo, cello solo, piano solo, violin with cello, violin with piano, cello with piano, piano left hand, piano right hand, strings alternating with piano, as well as the entire ensemble. The height of this textural exploration comes in the second-movement scherzo, which to me seems to look down the century to the sardonic Ländler of Mahler. Here, however, the grimace gives way to a grin.
The slow movement inhabits the regions of Beethoven's best: the Pathétique and "Moonlight" sonatas, the 7th and 9th symphonies, the Elegiac Song. It's strange, in almost all of these cases, how little effect comes from the intrinsic beauty of the theme itself. There is, however, great power in the harmonic rhythm, as if the chord changes alone (and in the "Archduke" Andante cantabile Beethoven more than once does little more than change the chords over an extended period of time) were magic. Well, they are, as is the pulling out of a definite theme from the stasis and galvanizing the movement at that point.
The Andante doesn't end, but melds into the finale, much as in the Fifth Symphony or the "Emperor" concerto, but in a far more concentrated manner. The finale itself plays with a harmonic ambiguity similar to the one found in the opening to the last movement of the fourth piano concerto. There, the opening theme seems to start in C and magically ends up in G. Here we start in E Flat and end in B Flat Major, with a little tail-phrase telling us we've been in B Flat all along. You don't need to be a harmony jock to appreciate this: just try humming the "do" of the scale. You'll find that it shifts within a few measures.
The Arcadia Trio comes as close to the ideal chamber performance I carry in my mind as anybody, including groups far better-known. Now, I have limited experience as a chamber-music performer and none at all as a member of a piano trio, so I expect a howl of protests about my next statement from string players. However, it seems to me that, given executants of equal calibre, performance success derives mainly from the pianist, responsible, after all, for so many more notes than the strings, and, as I've said, really at least two players, the left-handed pianist and the right-handed one. Since the pianist plays most of the time, he seems to me to shape the performance: he is the engine of the performance. Gepp is absolutely first-rate. I'm not saying he alone has set the interpretation (I doubt this in fact), but he guides the ensemble through rubati and accelerandi without rubbing your nose in them. Kosuta and Mlejnik are always with him. Even better, this performance remains true to the spirit of Beethoven chamber music: always a colloquy of equals, despite the hurdles inherent in the medium. This means knowing when to highlight, when to support, and when to blend into the wallpaper. All three performers have worked out the choreography to near-perfection. The tempi are fluid, but not outrageously so no wallowing or exaggeration posing as Romantic insight. The performers keep the focus on Beethoven unfolding his thought, rather than on their executant or interpretive audacity. This is a beautiful performance without a speck of star ego: fine musicians serving great music.
I can pay these fellows no greater compliment than to say I want to hear them "live" in my front room. The disc almost gives me that illusion. The acoustic is clean and intimate and allows one to hear the almost constant, minute adjustments in balance.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz