Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Piano Trio (1914)
Ravel’s Piano Trio was the last of his great pre-War scores. In fact, he completed the piece in a rush to join the French army in the late summer of 1914 (thankfully, for Ravel and posterity, the army rejected him on grounds he was too slight of build to fight. He served in the Great War as an ambulance driver instead). There is, perhaps in its closing pages, a sense of the heady exuberance that greeted the outbreak of hostilities; otherwise the Trio stands as an astounding, timeless creation that quickly established itself as one of the leading works in its genre.
Much of the music is informed by gestures found in folk music from Ravel’s native Basque region (he was sketching a piano concerto on Basque themes that he never finished around the same time he was composing the Trio). The first movement, in fact, begins with a Basque-ish rhythmic pattern: a three-plus-three-plus-two grouping that has the effect of completely obscuring the barline and any strong sense of meter. Both of the movement’s themes – the first narrow and chromatic, the second folk-like and lyrical – try to counter that feeling, but without complete success: it is a striking, hypnotic movement in large part because of this wonderfully strange rhythmic groove.
The second movement, “Pantoum,” continues the play of rhythm while it adapts the Malaysian poetic form from which it derives its title into musical terms. Its two themes – the first, choppy and staccato; the second, a tempestuous waltz – alternate wildly before being interrupted by a broad, expansive trio section.
The Trio’s third movement is perhaps as concise a passacaglia (variations on a bass line) as any composer wrote, its ten variations building to a mighty climax before retreating into the sweeping, orchestral-like hues of the finale. The latter wraps up this most phenomenal of chamber scores with gusto: in hindsight, it forms an aptly shining close to the most remarkable chapter of Ravel’s career.
Mozart (1756-81) Piano Trio in G K496
The piano trio, as a genre, is one of several love-children attributed to Mozart and Haydn. And indeed, as with the string quartet, both deserve some credit. While Haydn contributed prolifically to the genre — over the course of his forty trios, you can feel the genre evolving beneath your very fingers — Mozart provided us with a more modest six. But there is nothing modest about their conception: these trios contain all the melodic abundance and formal perfection one would expect. The Piano Trio in G major, KV496, dates from 1786, and is alternatively entitled “Sonata”: we are still so early in the genre’s history that its name has not yet properly landed. (Mozart’s first piano trio was entitled “Divertimento”.) Alongside its companion trio in B flat major, KV502, the work was composed for Mozart’s dear friends, the Jacquin family. It is appropriate that so convivial a work should have emerged from so cherished a friendship, and speaks of Mozart’s conception of the genre; later, when three of Mozart’s trios were published, he specified that they should be performed in “friendly, musical, social circles.”
Paul Schoenfield (born 1976) Café Music. Second movement.
The next time you’re out to dinner, and there’s a piano player providing live “background music,” you might want to put an extra tip in the jar. You never know if that piano player is the next Paul Schoenfield. As Schoenfield explains the genesis of his best known work:
The idea to compose Café Music first came to me in 1985 after sitting in one night for the pianist at Murray’s Restaurant in Minneapolis. Murray’s employs a house trio which plays entertaining dinner music in a wide variety of styles. My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music — music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall. The work draws on many of the types of music played by the trio at Murray’s. For example, early 20th century American, Viennese, light classical, gypsy, and Broadway styles are all represented. A paraphrase of a beautiful Chassidic melody is incorporated in the second movement.
Andrew Blankfield piano, Emma Chamberlain cello, Claire Parkin violin