Nicholas Ashton, pianist solo, chamber, contemporary piano music

Nicholas Ashton, pianist

Programme Note 14/11/14 Wales, Archduke Trio

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Trio Kv. 548, C major (1788)

1. Allegro 4/4
2. Andante cantabile 3/4
3. Allegro 6/8

This work is the sixth of seven trios for piano (with violin and ‘cello , except for the Kegelstatt Trio Kv. 498, which has alternative instrumentation for clarinet and viola) and was composed — at the composer’s customary speed — in 1788, while he was simultaneously engaged in writing the three final symphonies Kv. 543 in Eb, Kv. 550 in G minor and Kv. 551 in C.

Despite the apparent haste, it is remarkable how much precision, emotional depth and inventiveness Mozart brings to all these works; it is as if they had been in careful preparation in the composer’s mind long before they were committed to paper. It is a paradox with which all performers and listeners of Mozart are confronted — on the one hand the freshness and immediacy of creative thought, and on the other an expressive complexity which seems perfectly realised yet disturbing and with often hidden layers of tragedy.

Here, the first movement exposition is brisk and with operatic propulsion, much in the manner of the overtures to the great comic operas Cosi fan Tutte and Nozze di Figaro – the writing is brilliant, discursive, and witty. At the development, there is an abrupt shift to an altogether darker, more uncertain mood; short, cut-off phrases, heard first by the piano, are shared, interrupted and modulated in successive minor key shifts. The melodic material here has elements of Don Giovanni and of the Magic Flute (in its lost forest episodes). Within the space of a few bars, this altogether exceptionally unsettling development regains clarity, optimism and focus in the recapitulation — both in mood and outward brightness.

The serene andante cantabile which follows it sustains and enlarges the contemplative and somewhat double-edged moods of the allegro — here the longer, vocal melodic lines presented by all three partners in tandem evokes the peacefulness-if transitory — of the departure trio soave sia il vento at the end of Act 1 of Cosi, and also shares similar construction of phrases with the last, valedictory piano concerto, the Bb Kv 595 and the slow movement of his last piano sonata Kv. 576. It seems clear to me that the physical proximity of all of these works in terms of composition dates are somehow related in a continuum of mood, of thought, of personal expression.
The finale returns to the quicksilver intelligence and seeming effortlessness of melodic invention of the first; housed in the graceful dancelike qualities of the 6/8 meter and rhythmic propulsion and the inventiveness which Mozart brings to rondo form, so clever, so polished and so subtle that one may almost miss the resignation of the central episode in the dark key of C minor.
L. van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Trio op 1 no 1, Eb major
1. Allegro 4/4
2. Adagio cantabile 3/4
3. Scherzo: Allegro assai 3/4
4. Finale: Presto 2/4

Beethoven composed the three trios which comprise his op 1 in 1793 and dedicated them the the Count Carl von Lichnowsky, who was a major supporter and patron. The works were premiered at a private concert, hosted by the Count, in Vienna late in the year. Josef Haydn was in the audience for this; he complimented the first two works warmly, feeling that the third, in C minor – perhaps the most obviously experimental of the set – was so advanced in ideas that the general public was not ready for it. From a musician who was no stranger to experimentation, that should be regarded as astute praise and this was not lost on Beethoven, who had great admiration for Haydn – contrary to popular myth.

Although they are not his first works in this medium, Beethoven was sufficiently confident in the trios to entitle them as his first formal compositions – and with very good reason; all three are packed to the brim with material of the best quality of his early work; an instinctive yet immensely sure grasp of structure and of harmonic development, melodic fluency and rhythmic vitality (which demonstrates the extraordinary gifts he must have possessed as an extemporizer), and perhaps even above these, a searching expressive intensity and powerfulness of thematic utterance which was to be of such tremendous influence on the course of serious art music in the early 19th century and beyond.

In the case of this trio, it was the second movement Adagio which particularly caught attention at the time and when Beethoven contacted his publisher Simrock to authorise the printing of the works, he mentions also to his friend Andreas Streicher that it was at a performance of this movement that he felt confident in the quality of the work.

The first movement presents a boldly stated rising arpeggio which becomes the focus of some highly inventive variation throughout the work -it appears at the start of the last movement as a skip of a tenth. The piano and violin lead most of the material – the whole work is marked by a high degree of virtuosity – although the cello increasingly begins to take on a much more substantial role in the discursive nature of the work, marking a departure form that customary in most of Haydn’s and Mozart’s work in the medium.

The second movement- gloriously set in Ab major ( a favourite key for Beethoven at his most lyrical) presents an extremely vocal opening subject in the piano, responded to with warmth and tenderness by the strings. The move to the dark key of Eb minor in the central section of the this movement introduces a vivid contrast of mood and expressive range, exploiting a richness of texture in the piano writing which is quite unlike anything present in much of the Classical chamber repertoire at the time.

The incandescent Scherzo displays Beethoven at his most irrepressible – this surely must have been the product of many joyous improvisations – yet it maintains a clear head for symmetry and a subversive displacement of expected symmetry. This mood and this invention is continued in the dazzlingly brilliant Finale.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Trio op 8, B major

1. Allegro con brio 4/4
2. Scherzo: Allegro molto 3/4
3. Adagio 4/4
4. Allegro 3/4

The three trios for violin, cello and piano ( op 8, op 87 in C major and op 101 in C minor), together with the Horn Trio in Eb major op 40 and the wonderful Clarinet Trio in A minor op 114, represent an almost ideal portrait of the composer at the various stages of his development, although the tendency to regard Brahms, firstly as an experimental innovator, albeit heavily influenced by Beethoven and Schumann at the start of his career, then as a custodian of stolid, “pure” Germanic values, and latterly (and most incorrectly) as a conservative, can all be challenged comprehensively by simply listening and appreciating the music for itself, without attaching banners.

In fact, Brahms was perhaps all of these things at the same time and in the same place; this trio, written in its original version at the age of twenty-one, displays a remarkably secure sense of form and of expressive range, yet respects the established prior works in the medium. The revision of the work, which is that most commonly performed (as here this evening), was made thirty-five years later in1889 and carefully edits out some of the more experimental episodes (especially in the first movement) but maintains a pact with the directness and concentrated emotional power which is always a feature of Brahms’ major work. In particular, the third movement stands level with the exalted moments of the German Requiem, the Alto Rhapsody, the slow movement of the C minor piano quartet, the third movement of the second piano concerto, the last of the fourth symphony. We should, incidentally be grateful to Brahms that he considered the original work so highly that he undertook a re-think; he was notoriously unsparing of any work which he considered inferior.

The opening allegro is richly scored for all three instruments, with the cello floating a first subject melody of immense tenderness, this giving way to a highly charged rhythmic climax. The ensuing second subject, appearing in unison octaves in the piano, is more exploratory and disjunct; these ingredients are masterfully combined in a development of lucid structural construction, dissolving through recapitulation into a coda of translucent peace; the movement could stand alone as a work in tis own right.

The Scherzo displays all of the qualities of lightness, intelligence and drive as in Beethoven, with the addition of an unashamedly sentimental (in the best sense of the word) Laendler as the trio. The third movement I have tried to describe above. The fourth, a disturbing, unsettling Rondo – set in B minor to underscore the peace and serenity of the major ( the first and third movements) – possesses an ambiguity even from the start, with the opening cello again speaking first in a melody which oscillates indecisively around G, sharp and E sharp. The trio is a masterpiece of the form.

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