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Hyperion Records

CDA67556 - Mozart: Piano Trios K502,542,564

Recording details: May 2005
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: July 2006
Total duration: 58 minutes 27 seconds

'These are beautifully judged performances, generally fleeter of foot, airier of texture and more intimate in tone with an ideal balance between the instruments' (Gramophone)

'Superb execution … another feather in the Florestan Trio's cap' (International Record Review)

'Susan Tomes’s sprightly piano is in its element, leading the dance in these three mature trios … moods change at a flick of Mozart’s wrist, and Tomes, Anthony Marwood and Richard Lester have all the flexibility needed' (The Times)

'As in all their artistic endeavours, this outstanding disc of Mozart piano trios from the acclaimed Florestan Trio demonstrates a delightfully unforced lyricism coupled with the most exquisite, long-lined phrasing … sample the luminous performance of the central Andante grazioso of the E major Trio K542 to hear chamber music playing of the very highest order' (HMV Choice)

'The Florestan Trio makes this lovely music shimmer with dazzling facility. These are seasoned Mozart interpretations of high order' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'The Florestan Trio's accounts of the Third, Fourth, and Sixth trios set reference standards for stylish perception, textural transparency, and the kind of sophisticated articulation and motivic interplay that may be preplanned, yet never seems intellectualized … Hyperion's clear, full-bodied, and impeccably-balanced engineering deserves its own rave review' (

'The Florestan Trio, with pianist Susan Tomes at her most beguiling, give a scintillating account of three mature Mozart piano trios on this disc … whatever the technical intensity of the constituent roles Mozart demands of them, Antony Marwood and Richard Lester are well aware of how to make the best of their contributions. This is musical team-work of a very high order' (The Cambridge Society)

'The Florestan Trio, whose recording of Mozart Piano Trios prove an unmitigated delight' (Secrets, Australia)

'A delight … its virtues, of course, were no surprise. Susan Tomes' Mozartian credentials were richly established with her 2004 recording of the Piano Concertos K413-415 on Hyperion CDA67358 … performances as fine as anything ever released of these enchanting works. She is a pianist, and artist, of the front rank' (Piano, Germany)

Piano Trios K502,542,564
Allegro  [8'27]
Larghetto  [7'04]
Allegretto  [6'09]
Allegro  [7'28]
Andante grazioso  [4'19]
Allegro  [6'47]
Allegro  [7'44]
Andante  [5'52]
Allegretto  [4'37]

The piano trio had thrived as a genre suited to amateur music-making in eighteenth-century parlours, but it was only when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart turned his hand to the medium that it was transformed into the ‘art form’ we know today. Emerging from the home into the concert hall, piano parts became significantly taxing (Mozart wrote them for himself to play) and the violin and cello were elevated from accompanying roles to positions of equal prominence.

The three trios on this disc were written at the zenith of Mozart’s powers, K502 in 1786, K542 and K564 in the second half of 1788. All three are masterpieces, a sense of profound musical thought ever-present beneath their tranquil exteriors.

Performances by The Florestan Trio are every bit as committed and polished as we have come to expect from their many previous acclaimed recordings.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In Vienna in the late eighteenth century there was a large market for what we now call ‘Piano Trios’, but which were then described as ‘Sonatas for harpsichord or forte piano, with the accompaniment of a violin and violoncello’. They were written to be played at home by amateur keyboard players and their friends, and composers included Clementi, Kozeluch, Pleyel, Hoffmeister, and, above all, Joseph Haydn. In most of Haydn’s trios, the violin and cello do indeed act as accompanists to the piano, supporting the melody and bass. Haydn and Mozart, the two greatest composers of the late eighteenth century, had immense respect for each other, becoming close friends, and had considerable influence on each other’s music. But the piano trio began to take on quite a new character in Mozart’s hands. Unlike earlier works of this type, almost all of Mozart’s trios were written to be played at his concerts in Vienna, with himself on the piano, rather than the harpsichord, and the piano parts are tailored to his own exceptional skills as a pianist. At the same time, Mozart created a new relationship between the piano and the stringed instruments, in which violin and cello began to take on independent lives of their own.

In 1786, when he wrote the Piano Trio in B flat major K502, Mozart was at the height of his powers and enjoying the only period of real success in his adult career. The previous year he had completed the six string quartets dedicated to Haydn, and The Marriage of Figaro received its premiere in May 1786. He had now been living in Vienna for five years. When he had first moved there, pianos were not yet the dominant keyboard instrument (as they already were in London and Paris), and it was Mozart more than anyone who awoke the Viennese to the possibilities of the piano as a concerto and chamber instrument. 1786 was the year of three of his greatest piano concertos (K488 in A major, K491 in C minor, and K503 in C major) and of three trios—the sublime ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio for clarinet, viola and piano (K498), and the first two of his mature trios for violin, cello and piano, in G major (K496) and B flat major (K502). These are quite different from the contemporary ‘accompanied sonatas’, giving the violin and cello an independence on which Beethoven was later to build.

Despite this new independence of the string parts, the B flat Trio has a particularly flamboyant character in its piano-writing which makes it seem almost like a concerto. The first-movement Allegro is constructed virtually throughout from the opening phrases, in which piano and stringed instruments answer each other—an economy of means that is much more characteristic of Haydn than of Mozart. Only at the start of the central development section does Mozart venture further afield, with a new theme first on violin then on cello. The Larghetto is a movement of highly decorated lyricism, with a simpler and more poised middle section. Again the style of the elaboration seems to suggest homage to Haydn. The finale is a wide-ranging rondo. Its opening phrase has a rather antique character, like a subject for an organ fugue. From time to time Mozart does treat it to ‘learned’ counterpoint, but always with his characteristically light touch, and interspersed with dashing passages of virtuoso piano-writing. These are combined in a brilliant way as the movement draws to a close. But it is the unassuming little second theme that ends the work, wittily played in counterpoint, as violin and cello answer each other like two characters vying to be the last to leave the stage.

In May 1788, Mozart’s Don Giovanni finally reached the Vienna Court Theatre, following its successful premiere in Prague the previous October. After its first Viennese performance there was a gathering in one of the aristocratic homes of the city at which ladies, gentlemen and connoisseurs exchanged views of the new opera, its virtues and its shortcomings. Among those present was Haydn, who, according to a published report of the occasion, remained silent during this discussion. ‘At last they asked the modest artist for his opinion. He said, with his usual fastidiousness: “I cannot settle the argument. But one thing I know”—he added very energetically—“and that is that Mozart is the greatest composer that the world now has.” The ladies and gentlemen were silent after that.’

Despite the run of performances of Don Giovanni, by 1788 Mozart’s fortunes had changed for the worse. He had still not been rewarded with the post of Kapellmeister at court, and had to make do with the relatively minor position (and salary) of Court Chamber Musician, which he had been granted in 1787, the year which also saw the death of his father, who, though often a burden to him, was the greatest supporter of his life. But the most serious hindrance during this period was the outbreak of the Austro–Turkish war. Early in 1788 Emperor Joseph II of Austria joined Russia in declaring war on the Ottoman Empire. Joseph, who had been a liberal ruler at home and a supporter of the arts, led Austria into a disaster. Nothing was gained by the war, and over two years it put a heavy burden on the Viennese through taxes and rapidly rising prices. The nobility were less able to support the arts, and Mozart, like everyone else, suffered the consequences. In addition, his wife Constanze was ill and needed expensive treatment at a spa. In April Mozart advertised for subscriptions to a manuscript edition of three string quintets. But there were so few subscribers that he was forced to postpone the publication until the following year. He was running up substantial debts, and the family had to move from their apartment in the centre of the city out into a suburb. A fortnight later, the Mozarts’ fourth child, Theresia, died at the age of six months.

But a snapshot of Mozart at home gives no hint of all of this. A Danish actor visited him on 24 August 1788, and wrote in his journal: ‘There I had the happiest hour of music that has ever fallen to my lot. This small man and great master twice extemporized on a pedal pianoforte, so wonderfully! so wonderfully! that I quite lost myself. He intertwined the most difficult passages with the most lovely themes—his wife cut quill-pens for the copyist, a pupil composed, a little boy aged four [Karl Mozart] walked about in the garden and sang recitatives—in short, everything that surrounded that splendid man was musical!’

Despite his difficulties, Mozart wrote some of his greatest music over the summer of 1788. His last three symphonies were composed, and may have been performed at a series of three concerts organized for Mozart’s benefit. It was around the same time that he composed two of his piano trios, in E major and C major. On 17 June he wrote to his friend and fellow-mason Michael Puchberg, asking for another loan, and adding as a P. S.: ‘When are we going to make a little Musique at your house again? I have just composed a new trio!’ This was the Piano Trio in E major K542, and it was probably the same work he referred to in a letter to his sister Nannerl in August, when he asked her to play some of his new pieces to Michael Haydn (brother of Joseph), adding that ‘he couldn’t possibly dislike’ this trio.

As in the preceding Trio in B flat, the piano-writing is at times almost like that of a concerto. But in other ways the character of this trio is quite different. The key of E major is highly unusual for Mozart, and the first movement in particular is full of harmonic twists and surprises. The opening theme on the piano seems uncertain whether it is joyful or melancholy, drooping chromatically downwards in its second bar. Rushing scales as the strings join in seem to tilt the balance away from melancholy, and the music proceeds serenely on its way, until one of the piano’s rising scales unexpectedly hits a B sharp, abruptly generating a modulation to bring us to B major for the second theme. As this theme draws to a close, we suddenly find ourselves in G major and then G minor—very remote from E major. But Mozart equally quickly recovers to end the first section in B major, rounding it off with an extended version of the chromatically drooping second bar. Characteristically, Mozart follows with a development based not on the most prominent material, but on an apparently insignificant falling interval from the middle of the first theme, followed by a new phrase with a turn and a rising scale. The three instruments answer in fugal style, continuing in genial conversation until the piano suddenly bursts into a passage of flamboyant concerto arpeggios. Equally abruptly this comes to a halt, and we are back at the reprise of the opening theme.

The second movement is a graceful Andante, with dotted rhythms and pointed off-beat phrasing suggesting the poise of a formal dance. Again, sudden harmonic surprises give an occasional dark hint of what lies below the surface. Most poignant is the middle section in the minor, with the violin answered by questioning phrases in the bass of the piano.

Mozart had two attempts at writing the finale for this trio. He wrote more than sixty bars of a first version before abandoning it: just as he was embarking on a fugato passage, he decided to start all over again. The new theme which he then wrote is, as Alfred Einstein puts it, ‘almost childlike’. It owes part of its character to the fact that, as the piano begins the melody, the accompanying left hand avoids playing the keynote, E, until the strings come in. This has the effect of making the theme seem to float in the air, unsupported. The finale echoes elements from the first movement: a second theme begins with a falling chromatic scale, and in later episodes the piano breaks into brilliant runs and arpeggios, answered on one occasion by a dashing display from the violin. But the simple main theme seems quite unaffected by all this; and as the movement draws to a close, Mozart presents us with not so much a climax as a distillation of the mood of the whole piece. And this impression is reinforced by the final bars, where each instrument reiterates the little turn and rising scale that had figured prominently in the central section of the first movement.

In October 1788, Mozart wrote his last work in the genre, the Piano Trio in G major K564. It is a sign of the times that it was first published in England, not in Vienna. And it is a sign of the conservative tastes of publishers and public that, when it was finally issued in Vienna the following year, it was still advertised, like its predecessors, as being ‘for harpsichord or forte piano with the accompaniment of a violin and violoncello’. Mozart may have led the new fashion for the piano, but many households still had their harpsichords, and the predominant model for piano trios was still the ‘accompanied sonatas’, which Haydn was to continue writing long after Mozart’s death in 1791.

Indeed, this trio has a rather more ‘domestic’ feel than those Mozart wrote earlier in the year. It is simpler and shorter, perhaps aimed deliberately at the amateur market rather than for Mozart himself to play. Some writers have been disappointed to find this lighter work at the end of Mozart’s sequence of trios, and it is true that it says what it has to say without unnecessary complication. But Mozart at his most direct is just as difficult to play as Mozart at his most subtle and complex. He gives the impression of having put every note in precisely the right place, creating elegant and lyrical structures that require absolute clarity and precision. And if one imagines eavesdropping on friends playing at home, rather than the formality of concert presentation, this elegant and charming piece seems completely in its element.

The first movement is a fluent and rippling Allegro, with a second theme which is very closely related to the first, and a middle section that, rather than develop existing material, starts with an entirely new theme (as in the earlier two trios). These are examples of the subtle ways in which Mozart subverts expectations, even in an apparently straightforward piece of music. The Andante is a set of variations on a melody almost like a slow minuet, though with a hint of sadness in the harmonies of its last few bars. And the finale opens with a naïve little tune in the dotted rhythm of a siciliano. Its very simplicity enables Mozart to suggest shifts of mood with the deftest of touches: a move to a minor key clouds the atmosphere while maintaining the lively rhythm; another episode swings the music into a peasant dance. And the ending is a delight, with the instruments answering each other in wistful counterpoint, suggesting, as so often in Mozart, that deeper thoughts were all the time lurking beneath the tranquil surface.

Robert Philip © 2006

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