ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Piano Trios Op. 1, Nos. 1 and 2
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Piano Trio in E Flat Major, Op. 1, No. 1
Piano Trio in G Major, Op. 1, No. 2
Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770, the son of a singer in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and grandson of the old music director. The latter's fame was stressed in the family by Beethoven's mother, whose husband could never reach the standards so set, leading the composer to take charge of the family after her death, a responsibility that he took all too seriously. In 1792 he settled in Vienna with the encouragement of the Archbishop of Cologne, his patron, an ecclesiastic whose choice of profession was dictated in part by his parentage, as son of the Empress, and in part by weakness in his legs, which had ruled out a military career. In Vienna it was proposed that Beethoven take lessons from Haydn, a procedure from which he later claimed to have learned nothing. Lessons in counterpoint followed from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, with lessons in Italian word setting from the Court Composer Antonio Salieri, both of whom found their pupil headstrong.
Having arrived in Vienna armed with introductions to the best families, Beethoven soon established himself there as a remarkable pianist and a composer of startling originality. His career as a performer, however, was brought to an end by increasing deafness, the first evidence of which appeared at the turn of the century. This disability had the effect of developing already existing eccentricities of character, while allowing the continuing composition of music that impressed the conoscenti by its unusual qualities, if occasionally proving too academic for contemporary critics, who took exception to the contrapuntal elements that assumed greater importance as time went on.
The three piano trios that form Beethoven's Opus 1 were published in 1795 and dedicated to Prince Carl Lichnowsky, who had welcomed the composer into his house and offered continuing and remarkably patient and tolerant support. The first of the set, at least, seems to have been written some time earlier, perhaps in Bonn, but all three were first performed, presumably in an unrevised form, at Prince Lichnowsky's in the presence of Haydn, who had good things to say about them, but advised against the publication of the third of the set. Beethoven took exception to the implied criticism of a work by which he set greater store, suspecting jealousy, although Haydn later explained to others that he had advised against the publication of the C minor Trio for fear that it would not be understood by a wider public.
The Piano Trio in E flat Major, Opus 1, No. 1, opens with a first subject of innocent clarity, entrusted primarily to the piano, leading to a secondary theme in which the string instruments assume greater importance. The central development section of the movement opens with references to the first subject, with its ascending arpeggios and includes other elements from the preceding section, before the piano gently reintroduces the first theme in its original key to start the final recapitulation. The A flat major slow movement is introduced by the singing tone of the piano, the theme then taken up by the violin, echoed by the cello, to be developed as the movement continues. Unlike his teacher Haydn, Beethoven, in these first piano trios, includes four rather than three movements. The third movement Scherzo of the first trio is opened by the violin, joined by the cello and then the piano. Melodic interest in the A flat Trio section, framed by the repeated Scherzo, is confined to the piano, largely accompanied by sustained chords from the other two instruments. Wide leaps mark the piano opening of the Finale. The same figure introduces a central development, the succeeding recapitulation, and, in conclusion, the coda.
The first movement of the Trio in G major, Opus 1, No. 2, starts with a slow introduction in which each instrument has its own contribution to make, although the piano has the greater share of prominence. The piano opens the Allegro vivace with a sprightly first subject, leaving the violin to introduce a gentler second subject in a movement that follows the now usual tripartite sonata-form, with a central development and a recapitulation here reached by means of an ascending chromatic scale from the piano. The slow movement, in the key of E major, with a contrasting theme in B, opens with the main theme stated by the piano in the unmistakable idiom of Beethoven, well known for his ability to elicit an expressive sustained singing tone from the pianos of his time. The theme is taken up by the violin, before an elaborately worked piano part leads to the subsidiary theme. The cello introduces the Scherzo, immediately followed by violin and piano. The repeated Scherzo frames a B minor Trio. The Finale starts with the rapidly repeated notes of its opening theme, played by the violin, imitated by the piano and followed by the cello in a lower register. A second lively melody in D major appears in the piano, to be treated at greater length by the other instruments, when it re-appears in the final section of the movement. The reiterated notes of the principal theme, however, provide a recurrent element, to return in final triumphant conclusion.
Stuttgart Piano Trio
Since its foundation in 1968 the Stuttgart Piano Trio has won a considerable reputation for itself. In 1969 the Trio won the Mendelssohn Competition in Berlin and the International Radio Competition in Munich and since then has appeared in many of the leading cities of the world and at major festivals. The violinist Rainer Kussmaul was born in Mannheim in 1952 and trained in Stuttgart, later winning prizes in Montreal, Bucharest and Leipzig. He plays a violin made by Andrea Guarnerius in Cremona in 1692. The cellist Claus Kanngiesser joined the Trio in 1971, after study in Hamburg, where his teachers included Zara Nelsova, and masterclasses with Gaspar Cassado and Pablo Casals. He plays an instrument made in 1841 by Gian Francesco Pressenda. The pianist Monika Leonhard includes among her teachers Michelangeli and Alfred Brendel and completed her studies in Stuttgart in 1969.