Piano Chamber Music

Schubert: Piano Trio in Eb Major, Op. 148, D. 897

Stuttgart Piano Trio | Naxos 1989

Entitled Notturno, this is a single movement piece for piano, violin and cello, completed in 1827.  It features a famous melody played by the violin and cello in thirds, over simple Eb major arpeggiated chords in the piano.  Although it is in a major key, it feels like a very sad piece to me, which I think is partly due to its open simplicity and slow moving phrases.  The piano also takes a turn at the melody at various points, with the string instruments playing a pizzicato accompaniment.

Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49, MWV 29

Van Baerle Trio | Challenge Classics 2014

Completed in 1839, the first movement of this trio is an energetic Allegro with a very busy texture from the outset, the piano in particular given lots of fast, running passages.  The second movement is refreshingly calm, the three instruments taking their turn at a beautiful, lyrical melody.  There are moments of passion where the string instruments play with a very intense sound, crescendoing through long notes, and the piano part is given repeated, insistent chords.  The third movement is a fast, fun Scherzo, the piano again has lots of fast scale passages to play and short motifs are passed around the instruments.

Chamber Music

This exercise asks us to listen to some live orchestral or chamber music.  I went to a performance by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet which included music by Bach, Beethoven, Glazunov, Shostakovich and Schubert.

I find the experience of live chamber music performances quite different to orchestral concerts – they usually take place in a much smaller venue and have a very intimate feel. I enjoy watching the performers as they play, particularly small groups like string quartets because of the connection they make with each other through the music. I prefer to do this ‘live’ and in person (as opposed to recordings on the television or internet) as I feel closer to the performers and have the sense that they are playing for me; I think the hush and attentiveness of the audience around me also creates an atmosphere that makes me concentrate more on the music and removes any potentially distracting thoughts.

The programme was put together mostly chronologically, starting with an extract from Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge.  Shostakovich’s 7th quartet at the end of the first half of the concert also features a fugue, and I’m sure this link was intentional.  The programme notes were beautifully written by the quartet’s viola player (and founding member), Alan George.  As well as providing the historical context to each piece, they draw insightful parallels with other works and composers, and describe the important or unusual musical features of each one.  I also found it refreshing that the author wrote openly about some of the quartet’s experiences of rehearsing the music – this is an aspect of performance that is usually hidden from the audience.  The descriptions of the emotions behind the music are particularly fascinating to me.  For example the slow movement of Shostakovich’s quartet is described as ‘an encapsulation of loneliness and grief; dignified, objective, without tears.’  This emotion is evident from listening alone, but putting it into words so poetically adds another dimension for me.

Piano Transcriptions

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (1st movement)

  • Vienna Philharmonic | Carlos Kleiber | Deutsche Grammophon 2007
  • Piano transcription by Liszt: Lambis Vassailidis 2017

As a pianist myself I have occasionally had to suffer through playing some pretty terrible transcriptions of orchestral music (accompanying an amateur dramatic society’s rehearsals of Gilbert and Sullivan springs to mind!).  I think they can sometimes be very clever and effective however, and this is a good example.

Beethoven’s first movement of this famous symphony is very dramatic and I think the piano can convey the drama reasonably well – Liszt uses lots of octaves to help with this as well as some deep rumbling bass passages.  What I think the piano version misses is the symphony orchestra’s variety of colour; however ingeniously you write for the piano you can’t quite recreate the difference in sound between the strings, woodwind and brass.  The crescendos are also much more extreme and dramatic in the symphonic version, particularly because these instruments are capable of crescendoing through a sustained note, which the piano can’t do.  Liszt’s version does I think capture the spirit of Beethoven’s composition though, and he cleverly manages to incorporate most of the melodic lines and harmonies into the piano part (albeit for a rather virtuoso pianist!).