Shostakovich Piano Trio no 2 in E minor
The horrors of the Second World War loomed large for Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75), perhaps more so than any other Soviet composer. Nazi persecutions of Jewish people and other dissidents reflected his own tribulations with the Soviet regime, and the friends and colleagues who had disappeared into the night during Stalin’s purges. The E minor Piano Trio of 1944, his second, can be heard as a tribute and lament not only for one specific individual—Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky, about whom more to follow—but for all those obliterated by the grinding machine of war.
“I cannot express in words all the grief I felt when I received the news of the death of Ivan Ivanovich,” wrote Shostakovich to Sollertinsky’s widow in February 1944. “He was my closest friend. I owe all my education to him. It will be unbelievably hard for me to live without him.” Sollertinsky had been a dear and important friend, indeed: Musicologist, critic, and a fine writer on music, he had championed Shostakovich through times good and bad and had just recently travelled to Siberia to give introductory talks on Shostakovich’s new Eighth Symphony. Although Shostakovich had begun what was to become the second piano trio before Sollertinsky’s death from a heart attack at age forty-one, it was the loss of his cherished friend and colleague that spurred the work on to a rapid completion in the spring of 1944.
It’s hard not to envision the recently revealed death camps of Treblinka and Majdanek in the trio’s frozen opening, as the cello carves out a bleak melody in extremely high harmonics, so much so that the violin seems like a bass instrument when it enters and reveals that melody as the subject of an informal fugue. The piano establishes the extreme bass with its entry, and eventually the instrumental ranges right themselves, as it were, into a normal configuration. The first movement cannot be pinned down with a brief formal description; it’s Shostakovich at his most volatile, changeable, quixotic, unsettled, and enigmatic.
The second-place Allegro non troppo presents a scherzo-like movement written in white heat, in Shostakovich’s most savage and biting idiom. (Shostakovich has to be one of the very few composers who can make the major mode sound far darker and more ominous than the minor.) Only fleeting moments of dance-like joy emerge from what is overall a frantically supercharged dance of death.
In third place comes one of the composer’s most profoundly moving laments, a Largo that was played at Shostakovich’s funeral three decades later. A near-static series of repeated piano chords creates the ancient cyclic form of the passacaglia, used frequently by both Shostakovich and his friend and colleague Benjamin Britten.
Whether the last movement is overtly programmatic or not, the sense of Jewish people sent to their deaths in the Nazi camps is palpable. A middle section evokes Klezmer music, at first celebratory but progressively warped into music of horrific destructive power. After a sudden halt, gentle shimmering arpeggios in the piano lead to a reminiscence of the work’s very opening; a return to the stark bleakness from which the trio originally arose.
Beethoven Trio in Bflat major, Op 97 ‘Archduke’
This incomparable piano trio was written for Archduke Rudolf, the youngest child of Emperor Leopold II and Beethoven’s lifelong friend and patron. Sickly, also unencumbered by affairs of state, he devoted himself to music and by the time he was sixteen had dumped his piano teacher – the official music teacher to the Hapsburg princes – in favour of the 34-year old Beethoven who was making such a splash in Vienna. They became fast friends, despite the gap in their ages, and Beethoven even accepted him for composition as well as piano – the only composition pupil Beethoven ever had.
And, of course, the Archduke’s position meant that he could introduce Beethoven to the cream of Viennese society just when he needed it. Not only that, when it seemed Beethoven might leave Vienna – he’d been offered a job in Westphalia in northern Germany – the Archduke lured him to stay by teaming up with Princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky to guarantee him an annual salary, 4,000 florins for life; and when one was killed in a fall from his horse and the other went bankrupt, he took over sole responsibility and continued to pay Beethoven himself, even increasing for inflation until he died. Beethoven repaid his friend by dedicating some fourteen works to him in total – all his most important works, including the Emperor piano concerto, the Hammerklavier sonata, the Missa Solemnis – and this.
This is Beethoven at the height of his powers, completely the master of large-scale sonata form. The opening theme is one of great spaciousness, luxuriance, flowing serenely along into the more staccato second subject, masterfully developed in lush writing for both piano and strings. The scherzo is energetic and bouncy, wrapped around a trio that combines mysterious fugato with a brilliant waltz. Then, the heart of the work, a hymn-like set of variations “singing, but keeping the movement going” that seem to evolve from within, inexorable, crossing all the usual time boundaries – this is one of Beethoven’s later hallmarks – until a swift change in mood leads into the dazzling, dancing, gypsy-inspired finale. Subjected to constant development, displaying his incredible mastery of harmony and texture as well as rhythm and melody (that cello soaring above the piano tremolandos), it all leads to a thrilling presto coda.
Andrew Blankfield piano
Claire Parkin violin
Emma Chamberlain cello