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DEBUSSY. Piano Trio in G

Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire in the autumn of 1872 at the age of ten. His parents hoped that he would become a piano virtuoso and remove them from the genteel poverty in which they lived. Although Debussy won a second prize for piano-playing in 1877, the first prize eluded him, and two years later, when he failed to win any piano prize, his parents had to admit their dream would never be fulfilled.

In 1880, Debussy's piano teacher, Antoine Marmontel, took note of his first prize in score-reading and subsequently recommended Debussy to Tchaikovsky's patroness, Nadedjda von Meck, who was looking for a pianist to accompany her and her children on their travels. Debussy was engaged, and his duties included giving piano lessons to her children, accompanying her twenty-seven year old daughter Julia (a singer), and playing piano duets with Mme. Von Meck. Their journey that summer took them throughout Europe, ending in Florence where the family was joined by the cellist Danilchenko, who had just finished studying at the Moscow Conservatory, and the violinist Pachulsky. This trio of excellent musicians was required to perform every evening; their repertoire included Russian music and the compositions of Beethoven and Schubert.

Perhaps it was as a result of this exposure that, soon after, Debussy composed his Piano Trio in G. What were considered compositional weaknesses at the time later became Debussy's strengths. For example, Debussy frequently uses pedal notes, bass tones sustained through several changes of harmony in the other musical voices; these tones create dissonance and throw decorative elements into relief. His tendency towards modal melodic patterns would, handled with mastery over a decade later, help lend Pelléas et Mélisande its distinctive atmosphere of far away and long ago.

In 1984, in a review of the first recording of the relatively obscure work, Harold Schonberg, music critic for The New York Times, offered this perspective: "The Debussy piece is juvenilia. You can have a lot of fun putting it on the turntable and asking your learned friends who the composer is. Nothing in the music suggests Debussy. It is sweet, sentimental, and sugared; it verges on the salon." Its musical importance, he concluded, demonstrates that "one of the supreme composers and innovators of musical history . . . did not arrive on the scene fully formed." Listeners will have the pleasure of deciding if Schonberg's comments accurately reflect what they here in the musical performance.

BEETHOVEN. Piano Trio in G Major, Op. 121A

This set of variations was Beethoven's last published work for piano, violin, and cello. The variation theme was a popular hit of the day, a song from Wenzel Muller's comic opera The Sisters of Prague, first produced in Vienna in 1794. Beethoven probably wrote this trio in 1803 and revised it in 1816. Given their sophisticated style, both the introductory Adagio and final Allegretto were no doubt written at the later date.

In Muller's opera the character Krispin introduces himself by extolling the virtues of the tailor's life: "I am the Tailor Cockatoo, have traveled throughout the world, and am from head to toe a flat iron hero." From this simple tune, Beethoven created a set of humorous variations, characterized by their classical purity, precision, and restraint. In contrast to the lightheartedness of the bright G Major tune, Beethoven composed a slow, serious, and profound introduction in g minor. Muller's little tune emerges as an anti-climax after so portentous an introduction; that, no doubt, is part of Beethoven's joke.

The variations offer great variety in their scoring, both solo and in combination. Ileen Zovluck observes that they alternate between "delightfully brilliant displays and highly academic sessions." Variation 1, for piano solo, presents the theme in elaborate figurations in the right hand over dotted rhythms in the left. The violin joins for the second variation, playing the theme lightly over arpeggios and broken chords in the piano. In Variation 3 the cello offers the theme highly decorated over the piano's mostly quiet accompaniment. The theme first appears in the piano in Variation 4, but the strings soon take it over while the piano provides a lively accompaniment. In sharp contrast, Variation 5 features all three instruments in a sweet, undulating canon.

The light and swift sixth variation finds the theme hidden in florid piano passages set against sporadic, single note commentaries in the strings. The piano remains silent during Variation 7, a delicate duet in canon in the strings. In the eighth variation both strings and piano alternate in crisp staccato statements of the theme. An Adagio expressivo, the ninth variation finds the theme elongated and once again in canon. The music returns to its characteristic jocularity in the lengthier Variation 10 where the piano works out the theme in triplets against string accompaniment; some fugal treatment offers contrapuntal interest. The Allegretto provides an extended finale to the set, opening with a contrapuntal duet for strings with piano commentary and closing with a brilliant flourish of virtuosity in all three instruments.

BRAHMS. Piano Trio in C Major, Op. 87

The Piano Trio in C Major finds the forty-nine-year-old Brahms at the peak of his creative powers. Each movement is rich in melodic material, which the composer expands, varies, and transforms. The violin and cello introduce the main theme of the first movement in octaves. The strings play this theme at each of its formal statements in the movement except the last, where, finally, the piano is allowed to offer a brilliant declamatory statement that brings the movement to a sweeping close. The sedate second theme appears first in the piano over a rippling accompaniment figure in the left hand; this figure actually becomes a third subject in its own right. The development is stormy and expansive, Brahms pouring out transformations and variations of his themes. A traditional recapitulation of all the themes and an extensive coda conclude the movement.

The Andante con moto consists of a theme and five variations in the key of A minor. The strings present the main theme, a gypsy-like melody of marked Hungarian flavor set against an accompaniment of chords played on the off beat in the piano. The theme is a double theme: the piano plays an equal role with the strings in the five variations. The first, third, and fifth variations are based on the string melody, while the second and fourth are derived from the piano accompaniment of the main theme. Architecturally, the movement builds to a dramatic peak in the third variation where bold questions in the strings are answered by the piano. The romantic fourth variation is notable because it appears in the contrasting key of A Major, its elegant theme first stated in the cello.

Instead of the "jest" implied by its title, the c minor Scherzo is dark, shadowy, and full of eerie sounds. The predominant dynamic is pianissimo, demanding the utmost delicacy and control from all three players, particularly the pianist. The soaring melody of the contrasting trio in C Major offers a sunny but momentary respite before the ghostly Scherzo returns.

The intensity of the Finale's music precludes the humorous playfulness suggested by the marking Allegro giocoso. Two themes come into play in this sonata-rondo, which is similar in form to the last movements of Haydn and Mozart. The first is expressive and impassioned, performed mostly by the strings. The contrasting second theme, lighter in character, pits the duple rhythms of the strings against triplets in the piano. As he develops his themes Brahms makes a great deal of the repeated staccato notes with which the piano accompanies the first theme. The exuberance of the movement forms a brilliant conclusion to this masterwork.

John Noell Moore
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