Beethoven Recital for 27th March
Maggie Cole – Piano
Miranda Fulleylove – Violin
Sebastian Comberti – Cello
Recorded by Michael Whight on 21st March 2021
This recital consists of two of Beethoven’s very first published works, the Piano Trios Opus 1 number 1 in E flat major and Opus 1 number 3 in C minor.
In 1792 Beethoven arrived in Vienna, where he lived for the rest of his life. He deliberately delayed publishing his early compositions so that he could first establish himself as a virtuoso pianist and improviser, gaining a large circle of supporters and admirers amongst the family and friends of his patron, Prince Lichnowsky.
Beethoven was fluent and very much at ease as an improviser at the piano and at first it seems strange that his works didn’t translate to paper quite so easily; however, the constant crossings out and scribblings in his notebooks are in themselves a kind of improvisation, showing several ways of developing a single musical idea, often one idea superimposed upon another. Beethoven’s difficulty often lay in choosing one idea rather than another and the works sometimes languished for months or years in his notebooks before revision and eventually, publication.
The three trios of his Opus 1 were composed and revised between 1793 and 1795 and were dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, in whose palace they were first officially performed in August 1795 to a large crowd of Vienna’s artists and music lovers, including the composer Joseph Haydn. Haydn was complimentary about the first two works of this Opus but he expressed doubts about the third one, in C minor, which he thought might not be well grasped by the public. Despite his doubts, the three trios were very well-received by everyone present and were described as ‘striking and original’.
One of the more original features of these works was the sharing of thematic material between the three players, particularly noticeable in the increasingly independent cello part. These trios are more expansive in scale and more adventurous, both tonally and thematically, than most other chamber music of this time, and are at times almost improvisatory in character.
Piano Trio in E flat major, Opus 1 number 1
Allegro: This movement opens with the famous ‘Mannheim Rocket’, a brilliant arpeggio figure made famous by the renowned orchestra of Mannheim, familiar to contemporary audiences. The cellist grabs this figure from the pianist before the violin has a chance, thereby already staking out new territory. Normally, at that time, the violinist would get the first or second ‘go’ at such a motif. And already by bar three we have a suggested change of key, to A flat major, which gives the music an early element of uncertainty. The second subject is serious and lyrical, leading to a more fluid and wide-ranging third theme. The movement ends with an extended coda which begins secretively, after a ‘surprise’ false ending, and then romps inexorably to the finish line.
Adagio cantabile: This lovely movement in A flat major is in rondo form with a coda. The gentle first theme takes a few notes from the second subject of the first movement as its opening motif. Already by the end of the first bar there’s a suggestion of a new key, D flat major, but by bar eight Beethoven brings us back to the main key of the movement. The violin enters with hesitant questions and both the string players then share the next two episodes with the piano, exploring E flat minor and the more remote key of F minor before arriving at a joyful and quite thunderous C major. The gentle rondo theme returns and is followed by a thoughtful coda.
Scherzo and Trio: There is much tonal ambiguity, and dark jokiness; at the time of the first performance it might have struck the audience as the most subversively original movement of the whole work.The music darts into C minor, F minor and B flat, before finally establishing its home key of E flat by bar 15. Note the hurdygurdy-like sustained passages in violin and cello.
Finale: Presto. This light-hearted movement (in sonata form), begins with high leaps in the piano followed by insistent cross rhythms and then by scurrying semiquavers in the piano and violin. The second theme is a bright, quiet little march presented by the violin and followed by the cello, firstly with a smooth accompaniment, then by a ‘toy soldier’ figure in the bass. The march then suddenly slides into a gentle, rather Mozartian, chromatically falling figure and then into a parody of Haydn’s ‘Gypsy Rondo’ (fast semiquavers in the violin and also in the piano part, once the development section is reached). Forty three bars of unexpected and gentle contemplation bring us to a pause, followed by a hearty recapitulation full of wild and cheeky tonal surprises and abrupt dynamic changes. This movement in particular received the audience’s ‘undivided applause’, according to Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries.
Piano Trio in C minor, Opus 1 number 3
The key of C minor is a dark one for most composers and this work is no exception. The first movement, Allegro con brio, begins anxiously, hesitantly. The whole movement features ambiguous tonalities, sudden accents, abrupt dynamic changes and obsessive rhythmic figures. Falling figures are juxtaposed with rising ones and there is a yearning and almost Schubertian closing theme. There is tension and despair throughout.
After all this darkness, the lovely Andante cantabile con Variazioni arrives as a relief! The simple theme is played alternately by piano and strings. In the first and third variations the piano dominates; the three string variations consist of a contrapuntal duet for violin and cello, a high and intense one for cello and violin and a variation in which the violin plays two of the three string parts, delicately decorated by the piano.
Menuetto and Trio: Quasi Allegro The Minuet is quirky and fast, obsessive in its use of a two note (semitone and whole tone) motif. By contrast, the Trio section is warm and cheerful with its high singing cello part, high above the violin. It is disturbed only by six bars of sweet hesitancy in the second half.
Finale: Prestissimo This begins with another ‘Mannheim Rocket’ figure, ferocious this time, (unlike the one at the opening of the E flat Trio which we play earlier). The first melodic theme, presented by the violin and followed by piano then cello, feels breathless and hasty, whereas the extended second theme, given first by the piano, feels spacious and generous. It travels through several keys before reaching a triumphant climax with striding minims, in which you might recognise Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Much of the recapitulation in the second half of this movement is fairly subdued, with only occasional and unsettling allusions to D flat, before finding a slightly troubled peace in the final eleven bars of tender C major.