Speedread The trio for violin, cello and piano had its origins as a form in the 18th-century ‘accompanied piano sonata’, a genteel genre that evolved to suit the needs of amateur players. Haydn and Mozart soon elevated its intellectual and musical ambitions, however, and by the time Beethoven and Schubert had deepened its emotional message it was already beginning to turn itself into a form that was capable
both of challenging professional musicians and of articulating a wide spectrum of emotions. The three trios in tonight’s concert, all by giants of musical Romanticism, showcase many of the piano trio’s attributes, including pianistic virtuosity, singing strings, full-textured climaxes and compelling delicacy. It’s amazing what just three instruments can do!
Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor
Rachmaninoff composed two piano trios, both of them in his late teens, and to both he gave the descriptor ‘elegiac’. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio – inspired by the death of the pianist and composer Nikolay Rubinstein in 1882 – seems to have inaugurated a brief vogue in Russia for trios that memorialised fellow musicians; Arensky wrote one in honour of a cellist friend in 1894, and Rachmaninoff’s powerful second Trio élégiaque as a response to the sudden death of Tchaikovsky himself in 1893. We do not know why he had given the same title to his earlier trio, however, especially as its primary function seems to have been to give himself something to play in his first self-promoted public concert, given in January 1892 during his last months as a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Perhaps the fact that it was composed in the space of just three or four days helped focus and articulate his state of mind at a time when he had been enduring several months of ill-health. And presumably the prospect of confusion between his two trios never bothered him, as the first was not performed again in his lifetime, and not even published until 1947.
6 | London Philharmonic Orchestra
The piece is in one movement, cast in a broadly laid-out sonata form lasting about 15 minutes. Young though he was, Rachmaninoff was clearly already adept at the kind of smooth-running thematic manipulation he would display so resourcefully in his maturer works. The rising four-note theme first announced by the piano after an eerie cello opening contributes to much of the melodic material of the movement, though subsequent appearances of it are often subtly altered; even the romantic contrasting melody eventually introduced by the violin can be heard as deriving from an inverted version of its first notes. The developmental central section makes more persistently active play with this material, but after a return to the themes in their original forms the work closes with a funereal coda.