An A to Z of the Piano Trio Repertoire
By David Barker
The piano trio, by which I mean the combination of keyboard, violin and cello, is my favourite chamber ensemble. I was introduced to its delights at a concert by the Kalichstein-Robinson-Laredo Trio playing Brahms, Turina and Beethoven. Entranced, I immediately began accumulating the standard trio repertoire. The Brahms trios, especially the first two, have remained my favourites, but as the years went on, my acquisitions began to delve more and more into the obscure. Most were enjoyable, some forgettable, the occasional one a gem.
It is my intention over this series of articles to create a survey of the recorded trio repertoire, identifying available recordings (or at least a subset of them – see below), commenting on the works in terms of their general style and quality, and where appropriate, making recommendations. In conjunction with this, I will also create as complete a discography as my research sources allow.
I won’t be attempting to compare all recordings that I can access, particularly when it comes to the “big” works in the genre. By way of example, there are almost 100 recordings of Beethoven’s Archduke trio currently available. With such works, I will limit my comments to recommendations, based on my own listening and reviews from various sources.
The final caveat regards works of the atonal and otherwise “difficult” type: I have yet to find a way into this type of music and hence cannot possibly make any comment on it, other than that of its existence.
I will, over the course of the series, be developing an index for all piano trio recordings reviewed on MusicWeb International, combined with the discography. It will grow in parallel with the articles. There is a page which provides links to all parts of the survey - you can find it here.
In terms of how to structure the survey, the most logical way was probably chronological, but that would have entailed dividing the various time periods rather artificially into smaller manageable sections. Therefore, I settled on the simple alphabetical approach, thus leading to the title of the series.
My first rush of enthusiasm for this project was soon followed by the cold light of reality: where could I find this information relatively simply? Typing “composers whose name starts with A who wrote piano trios” into Google unsurprisingly does not bring up useful results. At the other extreme, using Wikipedia’s extensive lists of composers by era would mean endless dead-ends – if that isn’t a contradiction in terms – as composer after composer was found not to have written a trio, or not to have a useful list of compositions. As for works not given the generic title, that would be a whole new problem.
My best hope was that someone had done something along these lines before, without it being the same as what I was intending. The Internet being what it is, that turned out to be more or less the case. I found a number of sites with lists of chamber music (see below), which made this a viable project. Finding the recordings of those works was easier: two online classical music shops, ArkivMusic and Presto Classical, provide link pages from individual works for all composers.
What did surprise me from the outset was the number of trios in these lists that had never been recorded, despite the existence of a score. Therefore, I determined that in each article, I would include a Wish List, which comprises unrecorded trios that strike me as potentially interesting. It would be good to think that some time in the future, an enterprising trio member or record label executive might read them and turn a Wish into a recording.
The other surprise was the appearance of “competition” as I was finishing up this first article. The brand new edition (Vol. 25 No. 2) of the Chamber Music Journal, produced by the Cobbett Foundation, announced that it was beginning a survey of the piano trio repertoire. My heart sank. What was the point of me continuing my project when another was underway? However, as I read the introduction, I found that the author’s intention was not to look at what was recorded, but at the works themselves and to provide a significant level of musical analysis. Thus, our two projects, while inevitably overlapping, will be complementary.
Chamber Music Journal
Maurice Hinson. The Piano in Chamber Ensemble: An Annotated Guide. Indiana University Press, 2006.
A bit of history
When does the piano trio appear? The Baroque trio sonata would seem to be a candidate, but is not. It refers to a work in three parts, not necessarily, and indeed rarely, for three instruments. Bach wrote a number of trio sonatas for a single instrument: the organ. More commonly, two instruments, such as violin and viola da gamba, shared the melody, and were supported by a basso continuous group, usually including a keyboard instrument. These works were the progenitors of the true keyboard trio.
The evolution from trio sonata to keyboard trio is a reflection of the evolution of keyboard instruments. The keyboard instruments of the Baroque era were simply not strong enough to be an equal partner with the strings. Hence, they were consigned to the support role. The arrival of the fortepiano changed this, and then the pianoforte swung the balance to the other extreme, making it a challenge for composers and performers to ensure balance between the three instruments.
There is no definitive answer to the question “Who wrote the first piano trio?” but in lieu of one, the standard, if not entirely satisfactory, response is Haydn. Certainly, he gave credibility to the combination, just as he did the string quartet. He wrote at least 45 works, dating from the early 1760s through to the late 1790s, which are now given the title piano trio. However, the early ones were probably called accompanied keyboard sonatas, in that the dominant part is given to the keyboard, with the violin getting the melody only rarely and the cello essentially that of doubling the bass line of the keyboard. It is considered that this was to strengthen the rather weak and “tinkly” sound of the fortepiano. Numerous composers in the late eighteenth century, including, Carl Friedrich Abel, Emanuel and Christian Bach, wrote accompanied sonatas which are now called trios.
Abel’s keyboard sonatas with violin and cello accompaniment (opp. 2 and 5) date from the same time as the first Haydn works, but when you listen to them, they are clearly works for keyboard first and foremost. Both string instruments are accompaniment only, and the scores specify that the violin can be replaced by flute. There is a later set – op. 9 – which does apparently show a greater role for the cello (there are no recordings), but they were called sonatas for violin and cello, with the harpsichord reduced to the role of through bass.
The last of Mozart’s trios, K564, written in 1788, is considered by some to be the first to give equal status to all three instruments, but even here, the amount of time that the cello has in the spotlight is relatively small, and certainly it could not be described as an equal share. It is worth pointing out that when Mozart wrote this work, 20 of Haydn’s 45 trios remained to be written, and even in those indisputably outstanding later trios, the cello continues to have a very subservient role.
It was Beethoven, inevitably, who really established the true meeting of equals in this genre. His Opus 1 is a set of three trios, published in 1793. The era of the accompanied sonata was over.
What to include?
It would be perverse of me to draw a line in the sand in 1788 (Mozart) or 1793 (Beethoven) and say anything before this doesn’t count, thus striking off most or all of Haydn’s. Thus, rather than use a date, I will include works that are referred to in recordings as trios, even if they were published as sonatas. That will mean inclusion of works by the brothers Bach which have been recorded under that title, but not those of Abel, which haven’t.
In the alphabetical articles, I have adopted a more or less chronological approach to the order in which composers are presented. After each composer is a table detailing the works I have discussed, including the coupling(s). Where only a composer’s name is given, that indicates a trio (a number following the name identifies which of their trios). Where no composer’s name is given, that indicates that the couplings are all by the composer discussed.
Next: "A" composers
Index of all parts of this survey and review index