About this Recording
8.557723 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Trios, Vol. 1 - Piano Trios Nos. 5, 6, 10 (Xyrion Trio)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Trios, Volume 1

Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was the eldest son of a singer in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and grandson of the Archbishop’s former Kapellmeister, whose name he took. The household was not a happy one. Beethoven’s father became increasingly inadequate both as a singer and as a father and husband, with his wife always ready to draw invidious comparisons between him and his own father. Beethoven, however, was trained as a musician, however erratically, and duly entered the service of the Archbishop, serving as an organist and as a string-player in the archiepiscopal orchestra. He was already winning some distinction in Bonn, when, in 1787, he was first sent to Vienna, to study with Mozart. The illness of his mother forced an early return from this venture and her subsequent death left him with responsibility for his younger brothers, in view of his father’s domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven was sent once more to Vienna, now to study with Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn.

Beethoven’s early career in Vienna was helped very considerably by the circumstances of his move there. The Archbishop was a son of the Empress Maria Theresa and there were introductions to leading members of society in the imperial capital. Here Beethoven was able to establish an early position for himself as a pianist of remarkable ability, coupled with a clear genius in the necessarily related arts of improvisation and composition. The onset of deafness at the turn of the century seemed an irony of Fate. It led Beethoven gradually away from a career as a virtuoso performer and into an area of composition where he was able to make remarkable changes and extensions of existing practice. Deafness tended to accentuate his eccentricities and paranoia, which became extreme as time went on. At the same time it allowed him to develop his gifts for counterpoint. He continued to revolutionise forms inherited from his predecessors, notably Haydn and Mozart, expanding these almost to bursting-point, and introducing innovation after innovation as he grew older. He died in 1827, his death the occasion of public mourning in Vienna.

The first three piano trios, which form Beethoven’s Opus 1, were published in 1795 and dedicated to Prince Carl Lichnowsky, who had welcomed the composer into his house in Vienna and offered continuing support. These were followed in 1808 by a set of two piano trios, dedicated to Countess Marie von Erdödy, in whose house Beethoven had taken up residence in that year. In 1809 he initiated a quarrel with the Countess over the matter of a servant, secretly bribed by her, it seemed, to stay with his master. Although Beethoven later wrote an apology, he moved to other lodgings. At the same time he attempted to change the dedication of these two Opus 70 Piano Trios, naming instead Archduke Rudolph, his royal pupil and patron, on the excuse that the latter had shown a particular fondness for the works, but the original dedication eventually stayed. Beethoven had played the works at a musical evening at Countess Erdödy’s in December 1808, presumably with the violinist Schuppanzigh and the cellist Joseph Linke, and one listener, at least, described the works as of considerable force and originality, and remarked on the enthusiastic pleasure of the Countess and one of her friends at each beautiful, bold stroke.

The so-called Ghost Trio, the Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1, opens with the instruments in unanimity with a short motif that is to return at the start of the central development of the first movement, followed by a gentler second subject. The concise exposition is followed by a more extended development and recapitulation. The popular nick-name of the Trio comes from the eerie second movement, music of remarkable originality and suspense, in the key of D minor and unfolding against the ghostliest of piano parts, although things do occasionally go bump in the night. The main theme of the movement appears among sketches for a projected opera on the subject of Macbeth, which allows speculation on its possible connection with events in that play. The piano breaks the tension at the beginning of the final Presto in tripartite sonata form.

The second of the set, the Piano Trio in E flat major, Op. 70, No. 2, opens with a slow introduction, an unusual feature in this genre, the cello proposing a motif that is imitated by the violin and finally by the piano, until this touch of the academic, an element not always welcomed by contemporaries, is replaced by a piano cadenza. This ushers in an Allegro ma non troppo, where the principal theme is extended by antiphonal exchange between strings and keyboard. The second subject is introduced by an imitative passage based on the scale of G flat, recalling the slow introduction. A figure from the first subject opens the central development and later returns to start the final recapitulation, with its reminiscence of the slow introduction, quickly replaced by a livelier conclusion. The second movement, marked Allegretto, offers two themes, in C major and C minor respectively, and these are varied in alternation. The A flat major third movement, marked Allegretto ma non troppo, is in fact a dance movement with the equivalent of a contrasting trio section that uses violin double-stopping, suggesting the presence of a third string player. The finale, with a principal theme in marked rhythm, is unusual in the key of its second subject. The central development brings piano figuration that continues to provide an important element in what follows.

The Variations in E flat major, Op. 44, are thought by some to have been sketched in Bonn in 1792 and by others to be slightly later in date. They were first published in 1804. The Andante theme is given by all three players, in simple outline. The first of the fourteen variations allows the piano to elaborate the material, proceeding to a second variation for piano alone. The third variation offers rhythmic contrast in the violin triplets over a contrasting piano rhythm, and the fourth is entrusted primarily to the cello. The piano is given triplet rhythms in the fifth variation, while the sixth starts in unanimity. The seventh, marked Largo and in E flat minor, is opened by the cello, and the eighth, Un poco adagio, has violin and cello accompanying a singing piano melody with continuing triplets. This is followed by a more sharply defined ninth version of the theme and a capricious tenth. The eleventh variation allows the cello to introduce a characteristic rhythmic figure, over piano triplets, and the twelfth has an exchange between violin, cello and piano right hand over accompanying left-hand piano triplets. The E flat minor Adagio penultimate variation, with its sudden changes of dynamics, leads to a final Allegro, interrupted by a brief Andante interlude, before the rapid final Presto.

Keith Anderson

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