Programme Notes: Cordiera Piano Trio

C P E Bach   (1714 – 1788) Trio in D Wq 89 No.6

  I: Allegro II: Andantino II: Allegro

Of JSBach’s tribe of offspring, there are two who had clear influence on succeeding composers. The warm friendship and fruitful admiration that grew up between the youngest Johann Christian and Wolfgang Mozart is well documented; less well known is the esteem in which JS’s second son Carl Philipp Emmanuel was held by such eminent successors as Joseph Haydn (“Bach is the father, we the children”) and Beethoven who directed his own students to study the works of CPE. The latter is indeed a key figure in the transition from Baroque to Classical and even beyond. The concern with emotional communication as well as the flexibility of his language opened the way for much that was to follow in the more serious works of the next generations. In some of his works there is an obsessive concern over dynamic nuance – there is a famous bar in one of the keyboard Fantasias which contains eleven different dynamic markings ranging from pp to ff. Tonight’s trio, one of a set of six first published in London in 1776, is certainly forward looking if stopping short of such extremes; two engaging quick movements full of character and buoyant rhythm flank an expressive minor key slow movement.

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) Piano trio in Eb  Opus 1 No.1

I: Allegro II: Adagio III: Scherzo – allegro assai IV: Finale – presto

Don’t be misled by the opus number of this work. By the time Beethoven wrote the three trios that make up opus 1 in 1794, he had already produced a large amount of accomplished work including chamber and piano music and two substantial choral cantatas. He had been living in Vienna for two years and his playing had already attracted the attention of a number of leading professionals and also the first of the succession of aristocratic patrons who played so crucial a part in his career. He had left his native Bonn ostensibly to receive tuition from Joseph Haydn who had spotted the young genius on his way back from his second visit to England and offered to take him under his wing. As was almost inevitable given the spiritual gulf between the easy-going, cautious master in his early sixties and the arrogant, headstrong student scarcely out of his teens, the lessons were not a success and it was these very piano trios that were one of the rocks on which the relationship foundered. Haydn advised against the publication of the third in the set in C minor, fearing that its startling innovations would be misunderstood and would do the young man’s fledgling career no good in the eyes of the conservative Viennese musical public.  This wounded Beethoven’s justifiable pride in the work and even planted suspicions of jealousy in his young mind. Haydn’s motives were surely, if unnecessarily, protective of his young protégé; jealousy was an emotion of which Haydn was quite incapable of feeling.   

If the C minor trio is the most dramatic and innovatory of the set, then the Eb trio is scarcely less fresh and confident in its language. The first movement explores its wealth of material at length, involving all three players equally in the discourse; gone are the days when cellists in piano trios did little more than dog the pianist’s left hand. The slow movement, if less dramatic, has its own surprises in changes of texture and unconventional modulations. The third movement has the impetus and irregularity of phrase length to justify the title of scherzo rather than minuet even if the traditional A-B-A shape is retained. The wit of the finale makes this the movement in which Haydn’s influence is most clearly felt even if everything is on a larger scale than Haydn ever attempted in his chamber music and the ‘jokes’ are more impudent. 

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) Piano Trio in C major Opus 87

        I: Allegro II: Andante con moto III: Scherzo – presto IV: Finale – allegro giocoso

If the Beethoven trio represents a young firebrand feeling his way into a fully personal style, then this Brahms trio belongs to its composer’s ripe maturity; the first two of his four symphonies are behind him as are the two piano and the violin concertos. What lies ahead other than the symphonies is largely more wonderful chamber and piano music. The year is 1882 and the composer has been settled in Vienna for more than a decade although still touring widely as pianist and conductor, largely of his own works. He had been working for a while on two piano trios; although several of its movements were completed, the one in Eb was eventually abandoned but when he sent the C major work to his publisher, his complete satisfaction with it caused him to boast “You have not so far had such a beautiful trio from me and very probably have not published one to match it in the last ten years”.   

The composer’s confidence was indeed well justified. This is Brahms at the height of his abilities with the powerful emotional trajectory of his music supported by a rock-solid technique – material is handled with imagination but intellectual rigour. As ever he is happy to employ traditional forms: the second movement is a folksong-like theme with five variations and the third a chilly and elusive scherzo with a warmly melodic contrasting central section. The outer movements use the sonata form which he found so congenial and by which a wealth of material could be shaped and ordered coherently. If the opening allegro has a somewhat remote Olympian grandeur to it, then the finale balances this with a more human friendliness justifying the ‘cheerfully’ instruction. 

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) Piano Trio  I: Pale Yellow   II: Fiery Red

Brooklyn-born Jennifer Higdon came to serious musical study via teaching herself to play the flute using an old tutor book and listening to contemporary rock music. From unconventional beginnings she went on to study at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. By her mid-thirties she had served as composer in residence to and received commissions from leading American orchestras.

Her composing style is (in her own words) “intuitive and instinctive” rather than adhering to classical forms and structures. When her Concerto for Orchestra was played in London, The Times critic hailed it as “traditionally rooted yet imbued with integrity, freshness and a desire to entertain”. Her Piano trio was composed in 2003 and, as the subtitles suggest, reflects her interest in the connection between painting and music.