Movement 1: Moderato
Movement 2: Quasi variazione
Movement 3: Allegro risoluto
Like the rest of the musical world, Rachmaninov was deeply shocked and distressed at this news. On the evening of Tchaikovsky’s death he began a second Trio élégiaque to the memory of the master, completing it on 15 December. It is difficult to remain unimpressed by this work. It is true that the piano part is florid and very difficult (at one point, towards the end of the first movement, it erupts into a quasi-cadenza), and is clearly far more important than those of the stringed instruments. The finale is possibly too short to balance the large dimensions of the first two movements—but what passion and genuine depth of feeling are contained within this work! Rachmaninov’s Op 9, dedicated ‘To the memory of a great artist’, is as worthy a memorial to Tchaikovsky as Tchaikovsky’s A minor Piano Trio Op 50 was to Nikolai Rubinstein in 1881. The connections between these memorial trios run deeper; structurally, Rachmaninov’s work is strongly based on Tchaikovsky’s—to the extent of having a set of variations as the second movement, and the thematic likeness of both variation themes implies that Rachmaninov based his on Tchaikovsky’s.
The first movement of Rachmaninov’s D minor Trio élégiaque would seem, structurally, to be modelled to some degree on his earlier G minor work, but with a greater level of accomplishment. Thus a broad outline of sonata structure can be discerned, but here the material is even more homogeneous, and the manner by which the introductory lament is restated and expanded, leading to a wealth of material which appears to be a succession of closely inter-related variations, and the strict manner in which this is recapitulated—alongside the subtle tonal relationships of the movement—show this music to be Rachmaninov’s greatest large-scale achievement up to then.
As noted earlier, variation form is the basis of the second movement, and here the piano assumes possibly greater importance than in the first movement. The piano alone announces the long theme on which the ‘quasi variations’ are based, and the piano also has a long solo variation (the second). However, the eight variations (not so numbered by the composer) are both extensive and quite wide-ranging, although the string writing is such as to place these instruments very much in the musical background.
The finale is quite short and structurally simple. Once again the piano predominates, and begins with a strongly Tchaikovskian idea which dominates the first half of the movement. This builds to a climax, after which the opening lament of the first movement is alluded to before finally reappearing in full, its chromatically descending phrase bringing the Trio élégiaque full circle. The end of the work is restrained to cello and piano. The violin is absent.
In the original version of the Trio, Rachmaninov called for a harmonium in the second movement. Such is the writing for this instrument that it is virtually impossible for the pianist to play the harmonium as well as the piano. Thus this original version must be the only instance in a piano trio when four instruments, and four players, are required! In 1907 Rachmaninov published a revised edition in which the harmonium is dispensed with and other changes are made, the most important being a new variation in the second movement to replace another discarded solo piano variation. For another performance in 1917, Rachmaninov made several other important changes—principally in cutting quite a few bars to tighten the structure.
The original version of the Trio élégiaque was first performed in Moscow on 31 January 1894, in an all-Rachmaninov programme given by the composer with Brandukov and Julius Conus. This also included the Op 2 pieces for cello and piano, the Op 6 pieces (which may have been their public première), and Rachmaninov playing his Op 3 complete and his new Op 10 Morceaux de salon, together with some songs (presumably from Opp 4 and 8).
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2000