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PROGRAM NOTES: An Evening With Zukerman Trio

by Eric Bromberger

Scherzo in C Minor for Violin and Piano (Sonatensatz)

Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna

The brief Scherzo in C Minor for violin and piano is the earliest surviving piece of chamber music by Brahms–he wrote it in 1853, when he was only 20. That fall, Robert Schumann put together a collaborative sonata as a gift for the young violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, then on tour. Schumann’s student Albert Dietrich (1829-1908) contributed the first movement, Schumann himself wrote the second and fourth, and Brahms composed the third. All four movements were to be based on the sequence of three notes F-A-E, the initials of Joachim’s personal motto, “Frei aber Einsam”: “Free but lonely.” (Scholars, it must be admitted, have had a tough time locating that particular sequence of notes in Brahms’ movement.) Presented with the sonata on his arrival in Düsseldorf, Joachim was asked to play the four movements and to identify the composer of each. He is reported to have played the music easily at sight and to have guessed correctly the authorship of all four movements.

The F-A-E Sonata, as it came to be called, was not published until 1935, long after everyone involved in the project was dead. Joachim, however, had liked Brahms’ scherzo movement enough that he had it published separately in 1906, nine years after the composer’s death. It has become part of the repertory, for while it is a very early work and Brahms did not choose to publish it, this music already shows a powerful individual style and a firm command of scherzo form. It is in the expected ABA form. The outer sections are built on a pounding 6/8 meter, sounded first on the violin’s open G string and quickly answered by hammering piano chords. The brief 2/4 trio section, lyric but somber, leads quickly back to the opening material. Brahms provides a surprise at the close by building a huge cadence on a reminiscence of the trio theme.

This music has appeared under several titles. It is sometimes called Sonatensatz (“Sonata Movement”), a name that apparently originated with Joachim at the time of its publication in 1906. For his part, Brahms simply marked this powerful music Allegro.

Piano Trio in E Minor, Opus 90, “Dumky”

Born September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, Prague

Dumky is the plural form of the Russian dumka, a type of Slavonic ballad–perhaps of Ukrainian origin–characterized by a dark and elegiac character. In his “Dumky” Trio, Dvořák makes an important change in this form: to the melancholy music of the traditional dumka, he adds fast and jubilant music, so that each of his movements consists of sharply-contrasted parts. Dvořák began work on the “Dumky” Trio in November 1890 and completed it on February 12, 1891. When he played the piano part at the first performance in April 1891, Dvořák was a few months short of his fiftieth birthday and at the height of his powers. During the previous year, he had conducted the première of his Eighth Symphony, and in June 1891 would come double honors: he received an honorary degree from Cambridge and was invited to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Dvořák played the piano in a series of farewell concerts featuring the “Dumky” Trio before departing in the fall of 1892 for his new position in the New World. The last of Dvořák’s four piano trios, the “Dumky” has an unusual form, consisting of six dumka movements, each with slow and fast sections. The first three are played without pause, the fourth dumka is primarily a slow movement, the fifth primarily a fast one, and the sixth shows some elements of the rondo-finale, and so Dvořák’s highly unusual structure may be said–if one needs or wants to understand it that way–to conform to the four-movement shape of the standard piano trio. Far better, though, to take this highly original music, which annihilates sonata form, on its own terms.

The “Dumky” Trio is powerfully expressive music, ranging in emotional extremes from fragmentary, grieving slow phrases that often sound right out of Janáček to fast sections much like Dvořák’s own buoyant Slavonic Dances. The odd combination of dark music side-by-side with bright is curiously satisfying, the elegiac and festive sides of Dvořák’s soul flashing out by turns in this intense music. The Lento maestoso opens with falling piano triplets that soon give way to ascetically lean and beautiful string lines; at the Allegro vivace, quasi doppio movimento the music leaps brightly forward, and these two sections alternate before leading directly into the second dumka: Poco Adagio. Here the somber and steady opening pulse gradually leads to a dancing Vivace non troppo, where the violin flies quietly but brilliantly over staccato piano accompaniment; along the way Dvořák offers a brief cello cadenza. The third–Andante–is built on the piano’s chaste opening melody, played at first only by the right hand; the fast section–as in the second dumka–belongs to the violin. The fourth dumka–Andante moderato–has the feel of a slow movement because the fast sections are brief and restrained, almost a part of the fabric of the overall slow tempo. In a similar way, the fifth–Allegro–functions as the work’s fast movement because it opens at a fast tempo and, despite some slow interludes, remains largely at this pace. The opening of the Lento maestoso is dark, grieving, painful, as are the Lento interludes; Dvořák binds them together with vigorous dance sections.

Duets for Violin and Cello, Opus 3

Born January 11, 1875, Kiev
Died June 23, 1956, Moscow

The music of Reinhold Glière has almost disappeared from concert life in the West. There was a time when his epic Ilya Murometz Symphony was regularly performed, and his Russian Sailors’ Dance was once a pops concert staple, but even these seem to have drifted off our radar, and performances of his music today are rare. Trained at the Moscow Conservatory, he taught there from 1920 until 1941; among his students were Prokofiev and Miaskovsky. As a composer, Glière was particularly drawn to the folk music of the Transcaucasus region, and his work often has an epic, heroic character (the Ilya Murometz Symphony being one of the best examples). Glière composed five operas, seven ballets, three symphonies, and a number of concertos and other works for orchestra, as well as vocal and chamber music.

Glière composed his Eight Duets for Violin and Cello, Opus 39 in 1909, shortly after he had taken up a position as professor at the Gnessin Institute in Moscow. Glière intended these duets as Hausmusik: music–not too difficult–that amateur musicians could play at home simply for enjoyment. That did not prevent his writing technically demanding music, and these duets have been performed and recorded by some of the greatest virtuosos. This recital offers the first seven of the eight duets of Opus 39. The Prelude, which has been recorded by Heifetz and Piatigorsky, has the instruments exchanging roles: one sings the melodic line while the other offers steady accompaniment. The jaunty Gavotte has a musette as its central section: the violin and cello take turns providing this drone accompaniment. The Berceuse (sometimes titled “Cradle Song”) is muted throughout, while in the vigorous Canzonetta the violin sings the main theme over brisk triplet accompaniment from the cello. The Intermezzo is based on an ungainly (but pleasing) dance tune, while in the Impromptu the instruments exchange the long principal melody. This set concludes with the vigorous Scherzo; its Tranquillo center section brings a subtle variant of the vigorous opening theme.

Glière’s duets may be Hausmusik, but they are nevertheless difficult enough and appealing enough to attract even the greatest virtuosos–and to give pleasure to all who hear them.

Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 49

Born February 3, 1809, Hamburg
Died November 4, 1847, Leipzig

From 1835 until 1846 Mendelssohn was conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Not only were these the happiest and most productive years of the composer’s life, but they also marked one of the most distinguished associations ever between a conductor and an orchestra. During his tenure in Leipzig, Mendelssohn raised both performance standards and the salaries of the players, lengthened the season, and worked hard to introduce unfamiliar music to new audiences, seeking out the music of both contemporary and forgotten composers. Once the busy concert season was over, Mendelssohn would use the summer to rest and compose. In the summer of 1839– shortly after he had conducted the première of Schubert’s “Great” Symphony in C Major–Mendelssohn took his wife and young children to Frankfurt for a rest. He had long intended to write chamber music that would include piano, and on June 6 he set to work on the Trio in D Minor. The score was finished on July 18, but Mendelssohn continued to tinker with it until the end of the summer.

From the moment of its première, this trio has been a great favorite of both audiences and performers. Passionate, songful, gracefully written for all three instruments, it is one of Mendelssohn’s finest works, and both the trio and its composer were extravagantly praised in Robert Schumann’s review of the première:

It is the master trio of today, as in their day were those of Beethoven in B flat and D, as was that of Schubert in E flat; a wholly fine composition, that, when years have passed away, will delight grandchildren. Mendelssohn is the Mozart of the nineteenth century, the brightest among musicians, the one who looks most clearly of all through the contradictions of time, and reconciles us to them.

What Schumann meant by that final line has been open to some debate–Mendelssohn’s music hardly seems to admit the existence of contradictions, let alone resolve them–but there is no denying this music’s popularity. The opening Molto allegro ed agitato does not sound especially agitated to twentieth-century ears, which are more likely to be struck by the movement’s continuous flow of melody. In sonata form, this movement is a special favorite of cellists, for the cello introduces both themes.

The real glory of the Trio in D Minor lies in the middle two movements. The serene Andante con molto tranquillo belongs largely to the piano, which has the movement’s main theme; the violin and cello are frequently cast in supporting roles here, decorating and embellishing the piano’s music. The scherzo–Leggiero e vivace–is one of those fleet and graceful fast movements that only Mendelssohn could write, and which he could apparently write at will. Though built on two themes, this scherzo lacks the trio section of the classical scherzo.

The finale–Allegro assai appassionato–returns to the mood and manner of the opening movement. It is in ABABA form, with a quietly driving first section and a lyric central episode.