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Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010

Evolution of the Piano Trio

Prometheus Trio kicks off 11th season with Haydn, Brahms and Fauré

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The piano trio genre originated in the “trio sonata” of the Baroque Era (mid-17th to mid-18th centuries), where a solo instrument (usually the violin) dominated the proceedings, supported by keyboards (harpsichord, for the most part) and a bass stringed instrument. But the genre really took off in the Classical and Romantic periods—so much so that professional ensembles ever since have been able to make their way playing nothing but trios. Milwaukee’s pre-eminent Prometheus Trio, with Timothy Klabunde (violin), Stefanie Jacob (piano) and Scott Tisdel (cello), embarks upon its 11th season this month.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the Classical composer par excellence, wrote a couple dozen early trios that, generally speaking, are not considered among his best works; the latter half of his 45 piano trios, however, are so thought. Unlike their Baroque predecessors, Haydn’s trios are piano driven, and pianist Charles Rosen, in his book The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, asserts that Haydn’s mature trios are “along with the Mozart concertos, the most brilliant piano works before Beethoven.” The Prometheus Trio performs Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 27 in A-Flat Major, Hob. XV: 14 of 1790.

Johannes Brahms (1833-97) certainly composed fine trios, but it’s a sextet that has been chosen for the concert. His Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 (1865) is both quieter and gentler than his first sextet and, unusually for Brahms, contains a strongly personal back story. The music, though impeccably restrained and classically structured as is de rigueur with Brahms, reflects his relationship with one Agathe von Siebold—a romance that was abruptly broken off by the latter after Brahms made it quite clear that marriage was not in the cards. In the G Major Sextet he worked through his resulting despondency, noting to a friend, “Here I have freed myself from my last love.”

The Prometheus Trio is able to perform this work thanks to the transcription for piano trio by Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903), a German composer and friend of Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann and others.

Gentleness and elegance imbue every work of French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), but, aged, ill and deaf, he felt he had “come to the end of (his) resources” when, in 1922, his publisher suggested he compose a trio. Fauré’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 120, completed by mid-February 1923, surely proved he had not. The first movement is a rather small-scale elegy. The subsequent Andantino, both the longest movement and the one Fauré began his composition with, is melodic and full of pathos at its conclusion. Then, in a late surprise from the old master, comes a rambunctious, strongly accented finale. As Richard Freed observed: “In all three movements, this splendid work reveals (Fauré’s) characteristic qualities, refined to the point of radiant perfection, in both its lyric sections and its more vigorous ones.”

All three works will be performed by the Prometheus Trio at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music on Sept. 13-14.

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