Hyperion Records

Piano Trio in A minor, Op 50
1881/2; written following the death of Nikolai Rubinstein

'Glinka & Tchaikovsky: Piano Trios' (CDH55322)
Glinka & Tchaikovsky: Piano Trios
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55322  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Movement 1: Pezzo elegiaco
Track 5 on CDH55322 [17'44] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 2a: Tema con variazioni
Track 6 on CDH55322 [18'25] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 2b: Variazione, Finale e Coda
Track 7 on CDH55322 [11'40] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

Piano Trio in A minor, Op 50
On 23 March 1881 Nikolai Rubinstein died in Paris at the age of 45. His unexpected death came as a profound shock to his family and friends. Among the latter was Tchaikovsky who, whilst in Rome towards the end of the year, began composition of a piano trio in his memory. The work fulfilled several criteria: it was a ‘memorial’ work which contained a virtuoso piano part (after initially criticising Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Concerto, Nikolai became one of its ardent champions), and Tchaikovsky’s patron, Mme Nadezhda von Meck, had harried the composer to write a trio for ‘her’ ensemble (a group which she supported financially, the pianist in which at the time was Debussy).

Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor, Opus 50, was his only work for this combination, and for reasons that appear to have nothing to do with the quality of the music it has been somewhat neglected. It is a wholly original masterpiece, demonstrably Tchaikovsky’s finest chamber work. It is constructed on a large scale and falls into three movements, but the second and third are described as ‘IIa’ and ‘IIb’. This unusual description of the structure is explained by the second movement being a set of theme and variations (IIa). The final variations (IIb) are different and (as a group) conclude the Trio to constitute a distinct finale.

As a sonata structure the opening movement is Tchaikovsky’s largest (the first movement of the Fourth Symphony has an introduction not part of sonata form as such). In the large first movement of the Trio, Tchaikovsky’s treatment of the basic tonality (its relationships to the mediant, both major and minor) is shot through with astonishing examples of his genius. This is important, for it explains both the indestructible nature of the basic form (in other words, the firm structure on which the movement – and ultimately, the entire Trio – is built) and the underlying fascination of the music, which calls us back to it again and again. It also goes some way to disabuse those who claim that the movement is too long.

The first movement opens, as we might expect, in sombre mood, ‘Moderato assai’, with a haunting theme on the cello above a flowing, barcarolle-like piano accompaniment. The theme begins on E – and Tchaikovsky’s masterly symphonic thematicism grows from this note. The tumultuous outpouring which makes up the main part of this movement, ‘Allegro giusto’, is one of Tchaikovsky’s most sustained stretches of passionate, intense activity. There are two second subjects, both in E major (whereby Tchaikovsky abjures customary classical precedent), and the broad vista which such a tonal juxtaposition opens up accounts for the length of the music. The working is brilliant, the instrumental writing is virtuosic and wholly characteristic of this composer, and the emotional make-up is thrilling and deeply moving.

The variations of the second movement constitute one of this composer’s finest sets – of which, as we know from other of his works, he was a master. The simple theme itself, given by the piano alone, in E major, is original. It has been claimed that the variations are character-pieces inspired by aspects of Nikolai Rubinstein’s life and personality, which may be true. The variations include a mazurka and gigue early on, but we should approach this music in the abstract; tonally, the first three variations keep to E, and the fourth falls to the relative minor, C sharp. The fifth variation, in C sharp major, has the piano delicately tracing at the very top of the keyboard; a sustained C sharp on the cello, now the mediant of A, brings a lyrical waltz. The succeeding variations (including a fine three-voiced fugue – referring to Rubinstein’s academicism?) return, via related keys, to C sharp minor, in which key the movement quietly ends.

The finale is headed IIb, and – in a vivid A major (C sharp being the mediant of this key) – a new heroic theme appears, related to the theme of the variations. This brings a secondary theme, whose outline is already vaguely familiar, leading to an immense flowering of sustained symphonic development. Once more, Tchaikovsky stuns us with his mastery, until a vast variation-coda in A minor gradually causes the music to fade in intensity, and to end the Trio, Lugubre, with cello and violin phrases, piangendo (weeping), recalling the work’s opening pages.

Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893 was as sudden as Rubinstein’s had been. On the day he heard of it, Rachmaninov began the second (and larger) of two works which he entitled Trio élégiaque. When Rachmaninov died in exile in Los Angeles in 1943, the Russian pedagogue and composer Alexander Goldenweiser composed a piano trio in Rachmaninov’s memory; and there are other Russian works in this ‘elegiac chain’ (notably Shostakovich’s Second in E minor, Opus 67, written in memory of Ivan Sollertinsky). These are the more significant pieces in this remarkable body of memorial trios – perhaps a musical manifestation of the saying: ‘When a Russian is sad, he is very sad; when a Russian is very sad, then he is at his very best’.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2001

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDH55322 track 6
Movement 2a: Tema con variazioni
Recording date
25 April 2000
Recording venue
Studio 1, The State House of Broadcasting and Audio-Recording, Moscow, Russia
Recording producer
Ashot Akopian
Recording engineer
Alexander Volkov & L Doronina
Hyperion usage
  1. Glinka & Tchaikovsky: Piano Trios (CDA67216)
    Disc 1 Track 6
    Release date: August 2001
    Deletion date: May 2007
    Superseded by CDH55322
  2. Glinka & Tchaikovsky: Piano Trios (CDH55322)
    Disc 1 Track 6
    Release date: April 2010
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
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