Category: Orchestral/Choral/Chamber






Music that speaks to the soul…

SCHEHERAZADE was a symphonic suite composed by the Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888. It is his most popular work, and represents the epitome of his (already great) orchestrating ability. Scheherazade is comprised of four movements, each one of which represents a facet of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

The Arabian Nights were, in turn, a collection of middle eastern folk tales written in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age from the 8th to the 14th centuries. In the Nights, Scheherazade is the wife of a Sultan, who has plans to kill her. She forestalls this plan by telling him story after story—the Arabian Nights.

Rimsky (as he is often referred to, a shortened version of his hyphenated last name) sought general inspiration from the Nights. His plan was not to depict particular stories from the Nights in Scheherazade. He originally titled the four movements “Prelude, Ballade, Adagio, and Finale”—generic titles with no special literary allusion. He did not want the listener to associate any of the movements specifically with the voyages of Sinbad, which are central to the Arabian Nights. Rather, he said:

“All I desire is that the hearer, if he likes my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements.”


It was Rimsky’s faithful student and protégé Anatoly Lyadov who ultimately—after Rimsky’s death—gave each of the four movements its name, cementing in our minds the four stories:

1. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
2. The Kalandar Prince
3. The Young Prince and The Young Princess
4. Festival at Baghdad – The Sea – The Ship Breaks Against a Cliff


I think I have mentioned elsewhere that Rimsky-Korsakov combined a career in the military with a life of composition, that he was a member—really the most professionally accomplished member—of “The Five”—those Russian composers who were breaking ranks with Western ways of composing—Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov. His influence on western composition, in turn, can be heard in works by Debussy, Ravel, and Respighi.


Because of the immediacy and emotional depth of the music of Scheherazade, it has become a standard work in the symphonic repertoire. There are very few works of Russian music that are better known or more beloved. Non-musicians—even non-music lovers—have, over the years, become acquainted with it, hearing it as the backdrop for so many figure skating routines.

In particular, the third movement—The Young Prince and The Young Princess love story—is the simplest music of the suite, a simple A-B-A form, and the most immediately appealing. It is just so beautiful, with its long, spun-out phrases, music that speaks with immediacy to the soul.


The All-Star Orchestra is a very interesting project of the conductor Gerard Schwarz. He gathered 95 of the best musicians from the major American orchestras—half from Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Washington (DC), Houston, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, and the other half from the various New York City orchestras. Together, they filmed 8 programs of symphonic music for PBS utilizing 18 high definition cameras, playing in empty halls—the emphasis was exclusively on the music with no distractions. Scheherazade was part of the series.

Pics are Rimsky-Korsakov and Gerard Schwarz.







Extraordinary beauty in honor of an extraordinary man…

Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) was a writer, a playwright, historian and philosopher. He is claimed by both Denmark and Norway as theirs—he lived in Copenhagen during the dual monarchy of Denmark and Norway. He was the leading Scandinavian intellect of the time, a humanist and Enlightenment thinker. He is now regarded as the founder of both Danish and Norwegian literature as well as one of the great scientific theorists of the 18th century. He lived a life of simplicity, never married, never had children.

Edvard Grieg honored the memory of Holberg more than a century after Holberg’s death with “From Holberg’s Time.” This was a suite of five pieces, originally written for piano and then later arranged by Grieg for string orchestra. The pieces sought to replicate, in music, the dance forms that would have been popular in Holberg’s time. The dances have become known as The Holberg Suite.

Grieg wrote these pieces in 1884 when he was 39 years old in celebration of the 200th year of Holberg’s birth. The version for string orchestra, a little over 20 minutes in length, is extremely popular. And within the set of five pieces, the second one—the Sarabande—is an extraordinarily appealing work. A sarabande was a slow and stately dance—the most dignified and expressive of all the dances of any suite of dance pieces.

This performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, is superb. Karajan’s control and shaping of phrases, the balances he creates, and his tempo—ideal and perfectly maintained—all work together for a wonderful aural experience.

I can’t help injecting my enthusiasm for this work—the emotional peaks Grieg reaches at 2:06 and 3:39 are the kind that make you glad you were alive to experience them.

Pics are Grieg, Holberg, and Karajan.







If you’ve read any of my other Mozart posts, you know that I just cannot stop marveling at the life of, and the extraordinary gift of, Mozart—especially the life of the young Mozart. There was a time, when I was studying every detail of his life, that I attempted to follow all of the various travels he undertook as a child and adolescent via Google Earth—drilling down to the paths his carriage would likely have taken, the buildings and churches he saw, and so on. I couldn’t get enough.

Obviously, if the music Mozart had been composing as a child had been uninteresting, there would have been no need to bother with such an obsessive quest-to-know. But that was not the case.

Mozart is credited with writing 41 symphonies. The actual number is 38. Back in January of 2018, I posted (MIL #156) Mozart’s very first symphony, composed in London when he was eight years old. It is a work that I find not just extremely impressive for an 8-year old boy, but musically inviting on its own. The scores that were mistakenly thought to be symphonies written by him—K. 18 and 19, symphonies #2 and 3—were actually, it turns out, written by his father Leopold and by Carl Friedrich Abel, respectively. Abel was a composer residing in London at the time of the Mozart visit. (Just fyi, symphony #37 was actually written by Michael Haydn, the brother of Franz Joseph.)

So, today’s post, although still (and always) listed as his fourth symphony, was in fact his second. I find it even more attractive than his first; I listen to it very often. The Mozart’s were still in London in 1764—at the beginning of their lengthy visit, actually—still networking among all the leading musicians there. This short symphony is modeled on what was then the Italian opera overture, with its fast-slow-fast format. All three movements take but ten minutes in total.

If one is only familiar with the late (greatest hits) symphonies of Mozart—most notably the famous G minor symphony #40—then it is obvious that these early Mozart symphonies are not comparable in scope or complexity to those later works. Nevertheless, listened to on their own, with no presuppositions or expectations, one enjoys these works for what they, in fact, were—the earliest works of one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived.

The first movement is high on energy, the second movement deep in sentiment, and the third movement full of humor—at a fast pace. Neville Marriner, as always, treats these early symphonies will all the respect and reverence they deserve. Just an overall very happy work.

Pics are Mozart and London, both in 1764, the year this symphony was written.

1st mov’t:

2nd mov’t:

3rd mov’t:









Link:  highlight and select “go to”:


George Gershwin was born on this day in 1898. That would make this Gershwin’s 120th birthday.

I happened to have a birthday that correlated, in a small way, with Gershwin. I was born on the day that “American in Paris” was released in movie theaters—November 11, 1951. Since its release almost 67 years ago, American In Paris has been one of the most popular movie musicals ever made. The movie was a showcase for the incredible dancing of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. But there would have been no reason for Vincente Minelli to make the movie in the first place without the music of George Gershwin.

Gershwin composed American In Paris in 1928, and there has never been a time since then when the work was not a popular repertoire staple for American orchestras.

The background for the composition of American In Paris is interesting:

Gershwin’s original fame dates from his work in New York’s Tin Pan Alley where he started working, writing songs, as a teenager. His first success was with the song Swanee, popularized by Al Jolson. Gershwin’s songs ultimately became THE music of the American 1920’s. The number—and quality—of his hit songs is astonishing. As his popularity and renown were rising, though, Gershwin became increasingly frustrated at his own lack of formal music education. In particular, he needed—he felt—an in-depth knowledge of orchestration in order to fully bring his musical ideas to life.

Accordingly, whenever he could, he asked famous composers of the day if he could be their STUDENT—at a time when he was rich and famous and a household name all over the English-speaking world. Radio had entered the American scene in 1922, and Gershwin’s songs were being heard everywhere. But, in order to further his musical expertise, Gershwin asked for composition lessons from Arnold Schonberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Maurice Ravel.


Ravel, the great French composer—and one of the greatest (some would say THE greatest…) orchestrators in the history—took up Gershwin’s offer of being his student—but only after this exchange, which actually happened:

Gershwin: I would so like to become your student, Monsieur Ravel.

Ravel: Really, is that so? Can you tell me, how much did you make this past year (1926)?

Gershwin: I guess, about $250,000. (About 3.5 million in today’s dollars.)

Ravel: Well, perhaps I should be studying with you!









A touching homage to a cherished sister…

Here is a question to ponder: if you were a creative artist—composer, sculptor, painter, dancer, whatever—and someone very close to you died, and you felt COMPELLED to create something to memorialize that loved one—you were not CHOOSING to do so, some internal force was DRIVING you to do so: what do you think would be the nature of that creation? Would it represent your grief—would it be about you? Or would your creation in some way represent a summation of that person’s personality and character—would it be about them? Would only real art be a combination of both?


The ties that bind siblings are often as strong, or stronger, than any other kind of relationship. This was certainly the case for Felix Mendelssohn and his sister, Fanny. The love that bound them together was impressive in its strength. They had what can only be called a soul-mate relationship.

Felix and Fanny were born into a prominent Jewish family in Hamburg. Mendelssohn’s father was a successful banker, who was in turn the son of Moses Mendelssohn, the great Jewish philosopher. A sense of established pedigree, intellectual fame, and financial security were part of the siblings’ lives as they grew up. Being older than Felix by four years, Fanny’s musical education began earlier than his. It was inevitable therefore that she would become Felix’s musical mentor. She happened to be extraordinarily talented as a pianist as well as a composer, creating more than 450 compositions.

Had she been born in a different time when women were treated—at least as artists—equally, Fanny Mendelssohn would certainly have been one of the outstanding musicians of the day. Her pianistic abilities were stellar, more impressive even than those of Felix. As it was, she had to be content to bask in the glory and success of her brother. But there was never a time when Felix did not rely on her for compositional advice and insight—which was, of course, in addition to the regular, mundane everyday-life big-sister support that a younger brother can receive. In the same manner that Clara Schumann would, later in the century, provide musical guidance and general nurture for Johannes Brahms, so Fanny Mendelssohn did for her brother, Felix.


One of Felix’s special compositional skills had always been in writing for strings. So skillful and original was he that his genius as a child—it is alleged by many—eclipsed even that of Mozart. His 12 string symphonies, written between the ages of 12 and 14, are totally delightful—and professionally done. His Octet for strings, written at 16, and the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, written at 17, are stunning masterpieces of string-writing originality. Mendelssohn would write the first of his six string quartets when he was 20.


At the age of 41, after a rehearsal of one of Felix’s cantatas, Fanny suddenly collapsed and died, the victim of a stroke. Felix was absolutely devastated. He had been married at this point for ten years, but the degree of spiritual closeness he had with Fanny surpassed even that of a husband and wife. Fanny’s death created an enormous chasm in his soul.

The only outlet he had for what he was feeling at the loss of his sister was in composing. He poured these feelings into his Sixth String Quartet, Opus 80—and in particular, the third (Adagio) movement. One of the mysteries of the movement is how reflective and sad it feels despite its being written in a major key. One can only presume that this is how Felix remembered Fanny—this was a musical portrait of her. He titled the quartet “Requiem for Fanny.” Felix’s memorial for her was ABOUT her, a musical memory for him of what being in her presence felt like.

As it would turn out, this would be the last piece Mendelssohn would complete. Like his big sister Fanny, he also died of a stroke, just two months later in November, 1847, at the age of 38. On the surface, it would appear that there was a genetic cause to their early deaths, both through strokes. But it also seems plausible to many that Mendelssohn also died of a broken heart.

The Artemis Quartet is an outstanding German string quartet which has won many major chamber competitions and in their twenty years of collaboration have made an impressive number of critically-acclaimed recordings. The six Mendelssohn Quartets are the latest addition to their discography. I think you will greatly enjoy this short six-minute clip about the group and their Mendelssohn recording project. They are quite impressive! This clip gives a close-up great feel for what it feels like to perform in a world-class string quartet.









Written 1726

It is always astonishing to me to observe the ease with which Bach could musically conjure the happiest, most joyful sounds on the one hand—as well as those that are tragic, forelorn, and self-conscious on the other. Cantata #27 is one of the latter, as one might guess from the title of the cantata—Who Knows How Near to Me My End?—i.e., who knows when I will die.

The title of the fifth movement—my favorite—also gives an idea of the gravity of Bach’s thinking.

The English text:

Good night, turmoil of the world!
Now I make an end with you;
I stand already with one foot
Next to dear God in heaven.

Bach wrote this cantata in his fourth year as music director at St. Thomas in Leipzig, in the first week of October, 1726—just another week of extraordinary composition for him. In our traversal of the 200-plus Bach Cantatas, we are only at #27, and yet I feel I’ve run out of effective superlative adjectives. The well of Bach’s inventiveness and creativity had no bottom.

In the first minute of this fifth movement, Bach establishes two contrasting moods—one with longer melodic notes reflecting the speaker’s feelings about leaving this life, and another more agitated reflecting the turmoil of that life he is leaving. This recording features Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bass-baritone.

I’ve posted a number of instances of Fischer-Dieskau’s artistry in these Bach Cantatas. He was one of the few baritones who could sing as lyrically as a tenor and who also had an impeccable technique. The musicologist Alan Blyth said of Fischer-Dieskau that “no singer in our time, or probably any other, has managed the range and versatility of repertory achieved by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Opera, Lieder and oratorio in German, Italian or English came alike to him, yet he brought to each a precision and individuality that bespoke his perceptive insights into the idiom at hand.” This kind of interpretive insight is on display in this cantata.

As is often the case, the uploader to YouTube of this performance uploaded the entire 17-minute cantata, as opposed to uploading the individual movements. The fifth movement starts at 12:13. I’m sure I don’t need to say to Bach lovers that, as always, listening to every movement is a delight. The very first movement at 0:00 is especially worth your time.






I think this will be the first time I have done this in a post—only posting a short segment of a work. I intend to come back to the full story behind Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, which is subtitled a “Fantasy Overture After Shakespeare.” The entire work, needless to say, deserves to be heard. It customarily takes about 22 minutes to perform. But if there were ever a melody that would be at or near the top of most music lovers—musicians and non-musicians alike—and stands alone as a great work of music—it would be the “love” theme from Romeo and Juliet. Brief as it is here, I know you will enjoy it, and perhaps even listen to it multiple times. It’s that good.

You’ve no doubt heard the Love Theme from R&J your entire life. The melody probably wins the contest for being usurped for commercial purposes more than any other music—and that’s saying something. There’s nothing so effective as taking the sublime to sell the mediocre. I surely must have first heard this, in elementary school, in some TV commercial. Whatever…I’ve always loved it, even when I had no idea what it was or who wrote it.

The Waldbuhne (“woodland stage”) outside Berlin is an enormous outdoor amphitheatre. It was built prior to World War II at the request of Goebbels, and was a prominent part of the 1936 Olympic grounds. One could not accuse the Germans of thinking small. The theatre seats over 22,000. And it looks like every seat is filled for this pleasant evening performance of the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by the young and charismatic Gustabo Dudamel.







1st movt 0:00
2nd movt 5:47
3rd movt 12:04
4th movt 15:50


I was 27 years old during the summer of 1979, studying for my doctoral orals which were to take place in the fall. Despite my best efforts at engaging in an organized, months-long study, I continually kept getting SIDETRACKED by the beauty of music I was becoming acquainted with—in my futile and very naïve quest to be familiar with “everything.” I can only shake my head now at the naivete of my former self.

But of course, that part of me is still very much alive, a blessing and a curse. 🙂

Anyway, I thought it necessary to familiarize myself with all of the Mozart symphonies in my studying. I of course knew the “greatest hit” symphonies— from numbers 34 to 41—but I thought that was not enough, so I randomly started my listening to the rest (numbers 1-33) with this symphony, K. 134. Wow, I really got hung up on this particular symphony, I loved it so much! Like so many other Mozart works, this symphony seemed to me to be the EPITOME of happiness and grace!

Mozart was sixteen years old when he composed this A Major symphony, which eventually was listed in Kochel’s catalogue as K. 134. He would write an additional five symphonies, all in Salzburg, in the 1772-73 period. As I listened to these symphonies, I found myself asking, with every repeated listening, “HOW COULD A SIXTEEN YEAR OLD BOY HAVE WRITTEN LIKE THIS, day in and day out?”

When listening to these early symphonies—the ones Mozart composed while still in his teens, living in Salzburg, I think it is good to remind ourselves not to view these works through the lens of 19th and 20th century symphonic performance. There were no symphony halls back then. Symphonies were written for performance in rooms of the wealthy. Audiences were comprised of the upper crust of society. Seating was in chairs, all on the same level as the orchestra. Acoustics were never a prime consideration in how music sounded—these rooms were multi-purpose rooms, used for everything from balls to municipal ceremonies.

In writing a symphony, a composer such as Mozart had to first be assured there would be actually be instrumentalists available to play all the parts he might want to write for—were there going to be, for instance, all the wind players, he might need? Composers of this time always had to be flexible with their creativity.

So, these early symphonies of Mozart were performed in large formal rooms, for an audience of non-musicians, and most performances of everything were presumed to also be their last.

I am including a couple of photos of the Marble Hall in the Mirabell Palace, the domain of the Archbishop—the political and ecclesiastical leader of Salzburg, the “big boss” for whom concerts would take place and by whom young Mozart was employed—which is where this symphony—and so many others—was performed.

Imagine you are there for the first (and presumed last) performance of this work. There would have been less than 25 players for this symphony: 2 flutes, 2 horns, and perhaps 16-20 strings: violins, violas, cellos, one bass. They would have been positioned in front of the large fireplace, and velvet-covered chairs for the audience, perhaps 60-70 of them, would have been angled roughly in a semi-circle around the players. Sixteen-year old Mozart would have conducted.

I’ve made the Mozart symphonies kind of a passion over the years and own many complete sets of them from a number of great conductors. Those by Karl Bohm and Neville Marriner are prized possessions. One of my pet peeves with regard to this symphony—and really all the early Mozart symphonies—is that so many conductors—even those with household names—play these works with absolutely no love of the works they are playing, simply plowing ahead at overly-fast tempos and with none of the grace the works demand. Like an actor reading Romeo’s “what light through yonder window breaks” soliloquy at breakneck speed in a perpetually loud voice.

Fortunately, Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra always played Mozart with—for my taste—perfect tempos and the loving care that these works deserve.

Each of the symphony’s four movements is delightful. You will be short-changing yourself if you don’t listen to the symphony in its entirety.

Photos: Salzburg panorama, looking much the same as it did in 1772.
Marble Hall, Mirabell Palace (2).








“The most beautiful classical music I will ever hear.”

In 1936, while still a young man, Samuel Barber (1910-1981) wrote his second string quartet, Opus 11. He then arranged the slow movement of the quartet for string orchestra, and sent the score for consideration to Arturo Toscanini, the most celebrated conductor of the day. Toscanini returned the score to Barber, both annoying and hurting the young composer. Toscanini soon got word to Barber, though, that he had only returned the score because he had already memorized it and was planning on premiering the work with his NBC Orchestra. The work has been part of the orchestral repertoire ever since that first performance in 1938.

It is very likely that you already know this work, even if you do not know it by name or know the name of Samuel Barber. It is often performed at public expressions of grief—the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, of Albert Einstein and Princess Grace, of many events after 9/11, and more recently, after terrorist events such as occurred in Paris, Brussels, and Orlando. The Adagio for Strings conveys through music a feeling of extreme loss and sadness, and yet also at the very same time gives comfort to the mourner. It is extraordinary music, and is Barber’s best-known work.

In the long history of its universal appeal is a true story regarding President Kennedy. It had been such a favorite work of his that Jackie Kennedy arranged for the work to be played by the National Symphony Orchestra just days after his death—to an empty hall—and broadcast to the nation. The Adagio for Strings was one of the very few western works to be played in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It has been the backdrop (some would say the foreground) for many films including, most notably, “Platoon” and “Elephant Man.”

There are a number of fine renditions of the Adagio for Strings on YouTube. It is difficult, actually, to perform the piece poorly as long as the conductor has a sense of the architecture of the work (and good string players, of course.) I’ve chosen this particular one because there are no distracting visuals—no orchestra players to look at, no clips of 9/11 to see, nothing but a picture. Speaking only for myself, there are times when adding any visual element to music detracts from the aural and imaginative power inherent in the music. For me, this is one of those times.

It is very interesting, though, to read the “comments” sections of the other YouTube Adagio clips—so interesting that I want to include some of them here. They say, in concise sentences, all that one needs to know about this music:

• This was my late wife’s favorite piece of music. It has been 34 years, and I miss her so much each and every day! Rest in peace my love!

• Sometimes a man is broken, and sometimes a man just needs to cry, and when a man needs to cry, this where he comes to.

• First time my wife heard this was when we walked into a church in Rome. A string orchestra was rehearsing and started playing the Adagio. We stood rapt. The acoustics were incredible. My wife cried like a baby. One of our favorite memories of our marriage.

• I put this on, a couple minutes later my 3 year old son told me he loved me and started to cry. Amazing piece of music.

• Beyond this earth.

• For me, in eight minutes this piece sums up every human tragedy and sadness since our evolution. War, death, disease, greed and destruction.

• Breaks my heart. So powerful. So sad. So moving. This is soul music from the classical world.

• This saddest of all pieces has been the theme of my life.

• Haunting…beautiful music. This so beautifully sad…

• People who compose such music are certainly not human. There is certainly some divine intervention in this.
• Inspired by the infinite creator.

• Music for the soul. A masterpiece which says it all about humankind.

• I’ve been feeling numb for a while and this made me feel alive again. It reminded me of the choice that I’ve made : to live. It portrays the beauty and the sadness of existence both at the same time.

• Samuel Barber….. thank you for giving me hope that not all of man’s creations are abominations.

• The first time I heard this music it affected me like no other. My mother died this morning and as I sat with her for the last time I played this song over and over. It captured my sadness, my crying, and heartfelt pain at losing her.

• This is beyond words beautiful.

• This is the most beautiful classical music i will ever hear.







The chamber music literature is rich with wonderful piano trios—works written for piano, violin, and cello. When I posted the first trio by Joaquin Turina (MIL #170), I mentioned that I had been fortunate enough to play for many years in the Sinclair Trio, comprised of Jaroslav Holesovsky violin, Jane Katsuyama cello, and myself on piano. Our weekly rehearsals and frequent performances were definitely a highlight of my musical life.

I would not have formed the trio if I had not already had a passion for the sounds of the piano trio. The combination surely is one greatest examples of e pluribus unum—“out of many”—in this case, three—“one” to be found in music. I don’t recall exactly what motivated me, as a high schooler, to start checking out LP’s of piano trios from the Dayton Public Library. But I certainly remember playing those LP’s on the record player at the foot of my bed. I loved them all, but none more than the Ravel Trio.


Of the piano trios that have become mainstream literature, there are some relatively easy trios to learn and play—say, by Mozart, whose piano trios are regarded as the first in which the three instruments are treated equally, not dominated by the piano. Then there are piano trios that are somewhat more difficult, say, by Mendelssohn and Schubert. And then there are some very challenging trios, which require a significant time investment both in the practice room and in rehearsal—the Brahms and Rachmaninoff trios, and perhaps the biggest challenge, the Ravel Trio.

Ravel wrote his Trio in August and September of 1914 in a supercharged effort to finish the work before going off to do his part in World War I. He wrote in a white heat, accomplishing in five weeks what would have normally taken him five months of intense work. The end result is a marvelous work that instantly captures one’s attention from its first notes.


Piano trios have been, historically, very traditional works. By that I mean they were not used as vehicles for formal innovation—very often, they assumed the same form as the piano sonata: a first movement in sonata form, a last movement often a rondo, and two movements in between, one a scherzo and trio, the other one slow and lyrical. A listing of major composers who wrote piano trios—in addition to those I’ve already cited—would include Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Smetana, Debussy, Anton Arensky, and Dmitri Shostakovich. The piano trio repertoire is vast, fruitful, and worth investigating.

There have been, and continue to be, many well-known performers who made playing piano trios a substantial part of their musical and performing life: the Borodin Trio, the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, the Ax-Kim-Ma Trio, the Trio Fontenay, the Suk Trio, the Rubinstein-Heifetz-Piatagorsky Trio—and many more. But with the increasing size of the middle class in the nineteenth century—which collectively observed the unstated dictum of “a piano in every home”—home music-making also provided a ripe opportunity for the transcription of many works for piano trio to be played by musical amateurs. A prime example of this was Beethoven, who transcribed his first two symphonies for piano trio!


Maurice Ravel was born in southern France, in the very southwestern corner, in a town called Ciboure—in Basque country. In a culture that pre-dated both the Spanish and the French, and which overlapped those lands, Ravel grew up. It was impossible for him NOT to have Basque influences in his life, and therefore in his music. Such an influence pervades the first movement of his only piano trio, which utilizes a melancholy fourteen-note melody throughout.

A particular challenge for the composer of piano trios is making the cello part audible enough to counterbalance that of the higher pitched violin as well as the enormous piano, which can easily—in the hands of an insensitive player—overwhelm both stringed instruments. Ravel addressed this problem by writing for the extreme ranges—the lowest to highest notes—of all three instruments, while employing all manner of trills, glissandos, tremolos and the like, devices aimed at prolonging sound and showing with clarity the presence of each instrument.

There are dozens of Ravel Trios on YouTube. I think this one, by the Trio Rafale, is wonderful. Their tempo choices are particularly fine. Tempo choices can sometimes be very wide for a given work, with no harm done—certain facets of a work may show more clearly at a faster tempo, others at a slower one. But, as is sometimes the case, tempo choices are absolutely critical to the successful conveyance of a composer’s intentions. Just half a metronome notch too fast and a piece is ruined, as though the performers had no clues and had taken no time to get in touch—so to speak—with the composer’s mind. Half a metronome notch too slow and a piece can sound maudlin and dull. I was beginning to despair, when going through all of YouTube’s Ravel Trios,that I would not find one that was spot-on in conveying Ravel—as opposed to conveying the individual personalities of each player. Finally, I found this one, which is—to me—ideal.

The Trio Rafale was new to me. The players were students at the Hochschule der Künste in Zurich when they got together by chance, in 2008, to perform a chamber music concert—which included the Ravel Trio. They have stayed together ever since, winning major chamber music competitions and performing all over Europe and the world. They have just released their fourth CD. This particular clip comes from a performance in Osaka, Japan, where the Trio had just won the Osaka International Chamber Music Competition.  “Rafale” means a “gust of wind.”

The first movement ends at 9:40. Each of the four movements is wonderful, and I hope some listeners will find the time to listen to the work in its entirety, which is about 30 minutes long. You will certainly not regret it.
But, at the very least, I hope you will listen to the first movement.

Trying to describe in words what I feel when listening to this music—or trying to describe what I think YOU will feel—are both futile endeavors. I always remember that famous Victor Hugo quote about music, which pretty much sums up the futility of describing music in words: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to remain silent.”

Maybe it’s this very quality about music that keeps drawing us to it, like moths to a flame—except we never get burnt.