Programme Notes for Mithras Piano Trio


Piano Trio in C major K548 Wolfgang Mozart (1756 – 1791)

              I: Allegro II: Andante cantabile         III: Allegro

It was through the work of Joseph Haydn that the string quartet came of age; by the end of his long composing career the medium was displaying the most sophisticated workmanship alongside a wide range of emotional communication, a process of development taken as far again by his pupil Beethoven. It is clear, however, that Haydn saw no such potential in the piano trio; engaging and beautifully crafted as his many works in this medium are, they remain little more than dialogues for the violin and the pianist’s right hand with the left hand and the cello largely welded together in providing a supportive bass line. It was Beethoven who, in this as in so many other areas, greatly expanded the technical and emotional aspects of the genre. We should remember that it was Haydn’s misgivings at what he saw as incautious audacities in Beethoven’s Opus 1 piano trios that largely led to the breakdown of the relationship between the elderly master and his headstrong young pupil.  

Mozart’s piano trios form something of a bridge between those of his two great contemporaries, musically more sophisticated than Haydn’s but less emotionally rich than Beethoven’s. The piano takes the lead for much of the time but the violin and the cello have their individual contributions to make to the musical discussion. K548, in the customary three movement shape, belongs to the summer of 1788, being one of a number of slighter works composed during the remarkable six weeks which were largely devoted to the composition of what were to be his last three symphonies.   

Piano Trio Opus 21 Iván Erőd (1936 – 2019)

       I: Lento – allegro vivace II: Adagio III: Allegro vivace

The Hungarian/Austrian composer Iván Erőd began his musical education in his native Hungary at the Franz Liszt Academy but, fleeing the uprising of 1956, continued his studies at the Vienna Academy with the piano and composition as his principal activities. He remained based in Austria for the rest of his life, pursuing a varied career as pianist, teacher and composer. His output was both extensive and varied with chamber music an important area. His early work was written in the shadow of his great compatriots Bartók and Kodaly but in Vienna he came under the influence of the serialists. By the early 1970s he had found ‘a new tonality’ and was able to respond very positively to blues and jazz. The piano trio of 1976 shows something of the tight organisation of serialism but uses a language unafraid to make sympathetic reference to traditional harmonic practice.

Piano Trio No.1 Opus 8 Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)    

I: Allegro con moto          II: Scherzo (allegro molto)    

 III: Adagio non troppo    IV: Finale (Allegro molto agitato)

It was as a pianist that Brahms first made any mark. He first played in public in his native Hamburg at the age of ten and his performance was of a standard to attract the notice of an impresario who proposed that the boy should tour America as a child prodigy. His father, a professional double bass player of modest accomplishments, sensed potential favourable financial results but his teacher took the opposite view – it isn’t recorded what the boy himself felt – and the plan came to nothing. So Brahms’ early reputation was as a very talented pianist, a reputation which soon began to spread beyond his native city. And by his playing he was able to contribute to the family finances which, although not as meagre as some biographers have claimed, were certainly far from plentiful – there was no possibility of specialist advanced education.

It wasn’t long before the young man started to compose, his first attempts being fantasias on popular melodies, typical fare for a young virtuoso’s recital programmes. But alongside work of this type, more substantial pieces (including a piano trio) by one Karl Würth began to appear and it soon leaked out that this was a pseudonym which Brahms was using for his own more serious work. So very early in his career the young man was drawn to the composition of substantial works in the genres favoured by the great masters – amongst his first five published works are three substantial piano sonatas. These caught the attention of a number of leading figures in the German musical world (most notably Robert and Clara Schumann) and by his mid-twenties he was seen as a figure of importance with composition (rather than playing or teaching the piano) absorbing increasing amounts of his time and energy.

It is to this period (1854 to be precise) that the Opus 8 piano trio belongs, a year marked by both joy and deep sadness. Only months after he had been enthusiastically welcomed into the Schumann circle and hailed in print by Robert in embarrassingly glowing terms, tragedy struck; Schumann’s ever precarious mental health gave way, he attempted suicide and soon afterwards retreated into the asylum where he died two years later. This ghastly turn of events had the most profound effect on the young man; indeed the loss of his hero/friend and the profound complexities of his subsequent relationship with the widow Clara were crucial emotional mainsprings for the rest of his life. Inevitably something of this turmoil is to be found in the trio, the first major work to be written in the wake of the calamity, though it was finished long before it was realised that Schumann’s insanity was incurable and there are a great many moods other than the tragic to be found in the work. 

It was published soon after completion and became one of Brahms’ most widely performed chamber works. But in 1891 he revised it, explaining to his publisher that “he was not providing the ageing work with a new wig but rather just combing and arranging its hair a little”. This is typical Brahms subterfuge; in fact he substantially rewrote all the movements except the scherzo and, in shortening the work by at least ten minutes, removed much material which made reference to Schumann’s own music and to music which meant a great deal to him. And so the ‘autobiographical’ element, already only apparent to those intimately acquainted with the situation, was further obscured. Nothing is lost by the removal of these allusions; the work remains an unmistakably powerful emotional statement rendered all the more telling by the subsequent revision, made in the light of thirty more years composing experience. 

© 2022 Richard Hall