Compared with the quartets,
quintets and indeed some of the violin
sonatas Mozart’s piano trios have traditionally
held a much less exalted position in
his chamber music output. This seems
a pity for the set of five trios for
piano, violin and cello: K496, K502,
K542, K548 and K564, that he composed
between 1786 and 1788, contain some
of his sunniest and most relaxed music.
During this period Mozart was at the
heights of his powers and he had experienced
the only real success of his adult career.
In 1785 he had completed his six string
quartets, dedicated to Haydn,
and the opera The Marriage of Figaro
had received its première
in Vienna in 1786 to considerable acclaim.
The set of five piano trios, completed
within a two year timescale, date from
a period of great personal crisis and
unhappiness. Although the years 1786-88
were highly creative with the production
of his last three symphonies, the opera
Don Giovanni and most of the
late piano concertos, the period saw
Mozart rapidly spiralling into debt.
It was also the time of the death of
his father Leopold.
Biographer Alec Hyatt
King writes of the five piano trios
that, "The medium was a
popular one in Vienna, and, as none
of the five bears any dedication, it
seems likely that Mozart wrote them
to make money. But they may have originally
been intended for private enjoyment."
The basic structure is that which Mozart
inherited from Haydn. They are three
movement works in which the piano dominates.
At the same time Mozart employed a new
relationship between the piano and the
stringed instruments to explore new
ideas. The violin, and to a lesser extent
the cello, begin to explore a new-found
One of my favourite
works among the three Trios here
is the seemingly sunny and relatively
undemanding B flat major Piano Trio,
K502. It is easy to underestimate
the sophistication of the score in which
the piano part has a particularly flamboyant
In a three month period
in 1788 Mozart wrote three piano trios
and the first one the E major Piano
Trio, K542 is considered
to be the most significant and certainly
the most moving. As with the earlier
K502 the piano writing at times resembles
that of a concerto. Alec Hyatt King
explains that, "its texture
is transparent and the prevailing mood
is one of vernal happiness."
But the radiance is infused with a sadness
which is intensified by almost Schubertian
modulations to remote keys.
The G major Piano
Trio, K564 is the last work that
Mozart wrote in the genre. The score
was still advertised by the publishers
as being, "for harpsichord or
forte piano with the accompaniment of
a violin and violoncello."
This uncomplicated work has a
more ‘domestic’ feel compared to those
he wrote earlier in the year, being
simpler and shorter, perhaps, aimed
at the amateur performance market. For
all its outward gaiety and verve the
G major score, compared to K502
and K542, lacks tautness of construction
and fresh invention; the intimacy, too,
The award winning Florestan
Trio are firmly established as one of
the world’s premiere chamber ensembles
making their reputation primarily with
many excellent interpretations of the
great Classical masters. Their Hyperion
recordings of the piano trios of Beethoven,
Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann hold
a primary position in my personal collection.
The Florestans are equally at home in
Romantic music and I view their recent
release of the Saint-Saëns piano
trios on Hyperion CDA67538 as worthy
of the glowing reviews it has received.
In K502 the
Florestan Trio give an impeccable interpretation
that is natural and authoritative.
Pianist Susan Tomes provides just the
right amount of extrovert character
in the flamboyant writing. The finale
is a wide-ranging rondo that
is given a fluid and lyrical interpretation;
an unqualified delight.
and cheerful mood of K542 is
fluently communicated by the Florestans
who also manage to uncover the undercurrent
of melancholy in the score. I loved
their sensitive performance of the graceful
central movement andante which
is suggestive of the poise of a formal
dance and also the subtle playing of
the poignant middle section.
The elegant and lyrical
structures of K564 demand absolute clarity
and precision which the Florestans embrace
with style and refinement. The mood
shifts of the final movement allegretto,
which require the deftest of touches,
are achieved with remarkable perception
and adroit control.
Of the alternative
recordings one of the finest versions
is the 1990 Berlin performances of the
complete Piano Trios from the
Trio Fontenay. These brim with artistry
and exuberance (Warner Classics Apex
2564 62189-2; c/w Divertimento,
K254). For their masterly control
and strong personality I remain a firm
admirer of the complete Piano Trios
from the famous Beaux Arts Trio. These
scores form part of a five disc collection
of the Piano Trios/Quartets/Quintets
on the Complete Mozart Edition vol.
14 on Philips 422 514-2.
Worthy of investigation
is the vibrant and stylish 1994-95 Munich
account of K502 from Maria João
Pires, Augustin Dumay and Jian Wang
on Deutsche Grammophon 449 208-2; c/w
Piano Trio, K496 and Divertimento,
K254. Employing period-instruments,
another K502 and K542 recording of considerable
merit, is led by fortepianist Andras
Schiff. The 1995 recording from the
Mozarteum, Salzburg is notable for sensitivity
and alertness (Warner Classics Elatus
264 61733-2; c/w Trio for piano, clarinet
and viola, K498 ‘Kegelstatt’.).
On this recording from
the Florestan Trio the Hyperion engineers
have provided well balanced sound that
is bright and detailed. The Florestans’
modern instruments have a splendid timbre
and I especially admired the radiant
tone of the Steinway. The first class
liner notes from Robert Philip are interesting
and highly informative.
These superb performances
can live with the very best. Highly