Hyperion Records

Piano Trio in C minor, Op 1 No 3
1794/5; published in August 1795 and dedicated to Prince Karl Lichnowsky

'Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio' (CDS44471/4)
Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio
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'Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio, Vol. 4' (CDA67466)
Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio, Vol. 4
Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Track 1 on CDA67466 [9'45]
Track 1 on CDS44471/4 CD4 [9'45] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 2: Andante cantabile, con variazioni
Track 2 on CDA67466 [7'01]
Track 2 on CDS44471/4 CD4 [7'01] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 3: Menuetto: Quasi allegro
Track 3 on CDA67466 [3'35]
Track 3 on CDS44471/4 CD4 [3'35] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 4: Prestissimo
Track 4 on CDA67466 [7'26]
Track 4 on CDS44471/4 CD4 [7'26] 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

Piano Trio in C minor, Op 1 No 3
Beethoven was determined to impress and challenge the Viennese musical elite with his first published opus. And with their weighty, elaborate structures (four movements rather than the customary two or three) and urgency of musical dialectic, the Op 1 trios were a full-frontal assault on the traditional notion of the piano trio: what had been an intimate domestic medium in Mozart’s and Haydn’s hands suddenly became a symphony for three instruments. In the first two trios Beethoven’s subversiveness was still cloaked in the language of the classical comedy of manners. But in the Piano Trio in C minor, Op 1 No 3, it erupted in a work of startling explosive vehemence and dark lyric beauty. Haydn, recently returned from London, was among Prince Lichnowsky’s guests; and according to the reminiscences of Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries, the master was full of praise for Nos 1 and 2 but taken aback by the C minor, Beethoven’s favourite – though Ries’s story of Haydn advising Beethoven not to publish it cannot be literally true, since the Trio was already in print.

Whatever Haydn’s misgivings, Beethoven’s earliest masterpiece in his most characteristic key gradually became one of his most popular chamber works. The mysterious, ‘pregnant’ unison opening is, coincidentally or not, reminiscent of Mozart’s piano concerto in the same key, K491 (still unpublished in 1795). But the music is profoundly Beethovenian in its abrupt, extreme contrasts, with violent rhetoric (the first page alone is peppered with sforzando accents) alternating with intense pathos and yearning lyricism. The famous heroic narratives of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’ are already in view.

The exposition ranges restlessly across an exceptionally wide tonal spectrum – E flat minor in the stormy transition, then A flat minor and E flat minor, again, in the second of the two ‘second subject’ themes. There is a thrilling moment at the start of the development where the original pianissimo echo of the main theme a step higher now moves a semitone lower, spiriting the music to a strange new tonal region (C flat major, enharmonically spelt as B major). Typically of Beethoven, the quiet opening phrase is reinterpreted as a strenuous fortissimo at the start of the recapitulation. Then, in perhaps the most breathtaking stroke of all, the music slips into C major (with the cello taking the lead, itself unusual in 1795) and then to the ‘Neapolitan’ key of D flat for a new cantabile development of the main theme.

In a classical minor-keyed work, a slow movement in the major usually, though not invariably (think of Mozart’s G minor symphony and string quintet), offers a measure of respite. Beethoven’s slow movement, a set of variations in E flat on a characteristically plain, hymn-like theme, certainly lowers the tension. But there are plenty of inventive, authentically Beethovenian moments: the boisterous third variation, with its brusque sforzando accents and twanging string pizzicatos; the fourth, in E flat minor, with its plangent cello solo; or the coda, initiated by a rich chromatic reharmonization of the theme. Beethoven lifted the coda’s final bars for the little C major Bagatelle, Op 119 No 2, probably composed much earlier than its opus number suggests.

The third movement, somewhere between a minuet and a scherzo, returns to the C minor world of the first movement, with its restless pathos, irregular phrase lengths and explosive dynamic contrasts. In the C major trio Beethoven has fun roughing up the cello’s lilting Ländler tune with cussed offbeat accents. The Prestissimo finale (the tempo marking is typical of the young Beethoven’s determination to be ‘extreme’) juxtaposes violence, suppressed agitation and, in the eloquent E flat major second theme, lyrical tenderness. In the recapitulation the second theme, enriched with a new cello counterpoint, turns from C major to C minor, with deeply pathetic effect. The astonishing coda, held down to pianissimo for virtually all of its eighty-seven bars, slips mysteriously to B minor and then moves, via C minor and F minor, to C major. But the ending is uneasy and equivocal, with minimal sense of resolution (the recent memory of F minor is too strong for that), let alone of major-keyed optimism.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2004

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