Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Adagio cantabile
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro assai – Trio
Movement 4: Presto
Despite Haydn’s misgivings about the C minor, Beethoven’s Op 1 was enthusiastically received by both ‘connoisseurs’ and amateur musicians (‘Kenner und Liebhaber’ – a favourite eighteenth-century distinction), and made the composer a handsome profit. Yet with their largely emancipated string parts, their weighty, extended sonata structures and their intensity of musical dialectic, the three works must have seemed like a headlong assault on the traditional notion of the piano trio as a small-scale domestic genre. Each of the trios is in four movements rather than the two or three expected in chamber music with piano: these are not elevated divertissements, but symphonies for three instruments. And if the cello sometimes doubles the keyboard bass, as it rarely does in Beethoven’s later trios, it often asserts its individuality in a way that Mozart only intermittently and Haydn almost never allowed.
The first two movements of the E flat major Trio, No 1, are the most obviously Mozartian in the set, though the opening Allegro’s textural richness, thematic abundance and sheer breadth of scale are hallmarks of the young Beethoven. There is expansion at almost every level: say, in the second group’s leisurely proliferation of themes, beginning with a quiet chorale-like melody spiced with sforzando accents; or in the huge coda, in effect a second development, where first piano and then strings further exploit the movement’s opening ‘rocket’ figure, at one point nonchalantly turning it upside down.
The Adagio cantabile in A flat is just as expansive, a luxuriant rondo with a first episode fashioned as a soulful love duet for violin and cello (in its eloquent middle and upper registers) and an impassioned second episode in the outré key of A flat minor – calculated to appeal to the Kenner among Prince Lichnowsky’s audience. The third movement is the most subversively original in the work, and the first of Beethoven’s true scherzi: with its initial tonal ambiguity (the music feints at C minor, F minor and B flat before finally establishing E flat in bar 15), its comical obsession with the ‘flicking’ opening figure, and its mingled cussedness and mercurial lightness, it leaves its minuet model far in the background.
If the spirit of Mozart lies behind the first two movements, the sonata-form finale suggests Haydn in its verve and brilliance, and in the witty capital Beethoven makes of the initial leaping figure. But the coda is again expanded beyond Haydn’s dimensions into a second development. Its sly opening shift from E flat to E major and subsequent fortissimo wrench back again are an early example of a Beethoven ploy that will find its comic apotheosis in the finale of the Eighth Symphony.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2004