PIANO TRIO IN A MINOR
FIRST MOVEMENT: MODERE
MAKIE WIEDERKEHR, PIANO
DANIEL MELLER, VIOLIN
FLURIN CUONZ, CELLO
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.