Beethoven Piano Trio no. 1 in Eb, op. 1. no.1

performed by Henryk Szeryng, violin; Pierre Fournier, cello; Wilhelm Kempff, piano; or below
by the Istomin/Stern/Rose trio

That’s a lot of ones.

I have a confession to make. This is the first piano trio I’ve ever listened to in full, and it wasn’t until just a month or so ago that I did so, around the time I’d decided to get this series going.
So I’m not entirely sure if it’s this piece alone or just some inherent magic to this perfect little combination of instruments that makes it so appealing. I guess we shall see. There are two more after this one, but, spoiler alert: I find them just as charming. 
Let’s talk for a minute about the piano trio. Haydn did them. He was Beethoven’s teacher. But there are a few things to note about Haydn’s piano trios. Charles Rosen suggests it’s because of the sound of the pianos of the day, but most of Haydn’s trios are basically piano sonatas with violin and cello accompaniment. Rosen says it’s to fill out the tone of the piano. The violin rarely takes the lead with melody, and when it does, the piano is apparently doubling, and the cello is relegated to doubling the bass line. While that might make it sound like Haydn’s trios are not true chamber works, they are quite significant. Rosen says of Haydn’s late trios that they are are “along with the Mozart concertos the most brilliant piano works before Beethoven.” Well, now we are at Beethoven, and let’s see what he does with them.
But first, let’s think a bit about our composer. He’s in his mid twenties (twenty-three at the time of the first performance of his op. 1 pieces, no?) and is looking to make a name for himself. He’s a fantastically talented pianist and chooses a less-regarded model for his op. 1. Why? Well, maybe he’s saving them for when he really wants to make a statement, or maybe he’s just not ready. In any case, the piano trio is also a very economical choice. The piano itself offers both a treble and bass line, and the addition of violin and cello gives us plenty to work with while also showing off Beethoven’s talent as a pianist.
He does more with his trios than almost anyone else had before. For starters, his bowed strings are much more at the foreground. Secondly, these works are much longer, at around a half-hour each, because of the third point: they’re in four movements. Beethoven brings us the scherzo to round out his trios into full-on four-movement forms. Well-played, no? Smart guy.
This piece, like the other two trios that make up the opus one, was first performed in 1793 in the home of the dedicatee, one Prince Lichnowsky. They were published two years later, in 1795. (Do recall, however, that these were not Beethoven’s first published works. Yesterday’s Dressler Variations, the WoO 63 takes that cake.)
The first thought I had in listening to this piece is that, classical as it may be, it feels decidedly NOT Mozart. I would use the word ‘dry’ to describe the latter if it didn’t sound so negative. While we saw his piano sonatas reach greater and greater freedom in harmony and expression, this is even more the case in this trio (more on that, maybe, tomorrow). 
I think many people would probably not object to Mozart as the epitome (or at least a good example) of the Classical sentiment. These Beethoven compositions did come a solid few decades after the Mozart pieces we’ve discussed, first performed only two years after his death. 
What I mean to say, I guess, is that even though it was more than 200 years ago, those twenty years make a difference. Also, it’s Beethoven. 
The first movement is a very solid, very straightforward sonata form. The exposition and its repeat take up almost the first six minutes alone, and then with the recapitulation and coda, there isn’t a
ton of room for development, but I don’t mind. The two themes are fantastic. They aren’t anything to gush over, but they’re able to support the weight of the first movement quite nicely. It’s a very good start. 
The second movement is our slow movement, in A flat major. The piano leads delicately with the first subject of the movement, and it’s quiet and simple and beautiful. I love this movement. There’s a strongly contrasting middle passage with prominent violin and then cello lines that is quite somber, and in great contrast with the opening. It’s purdy
The third movement is (at least theoretically or technically or whatever) the first Beethoven scherzo to grace the world with its presence. As we stated earlier, it was kind of a new thing to cast a piano trio into such a serious mold, with a scherzo and all. It’s in Eb, with a trio in Ab. This scherzo, while not a growling, romping thing, has a certain energy. It wants to have the pleasantness of a waltz or minuet, but it’s more energetic, less polished, perhaps more for the barnyard than the ballroom. Not that extreme. It’s the shortest movement of our four today. There’s some tasty strings vs. piano play in the layout at the beginning. The opening scherzo bit is repeated, and then there is a very quiet trio. The strings blend together and just as you start to settle in, the trio returns, and this time around, it feels much more rambunctious, but even it ends quietly. 
The finale feels somewhat similar to the opening movement, but more lively. I really love this movement. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Beethoven. What is it? It’s still quite obviously the Classical era, but it has a passion, as Uchida says, a “spirituality,” this underlying, subtle kind of depth and emotion. A fantastic example of this, I think is this final movement. The result is somehow greater than the sum of its three parts. It’s the liveliest of all four movements, and it has a stormier passage toward the middle before the main subject returns. The last 45 seconds of this work are at once tense, playful, lyrical, and so satisfying.
Everything in this first work of the first opus number is so sweet, so perfect, so rich. It seems simple and straightforward at first, but the more you listen, the more you appreciate it and fall in love with it, for no real definable reason. Uchida claims that these first three trios present everything that Beethoven’s music would later become. She says it’s all here. I have to feel that much of this is planned, well-placed strategy. After all, Beethoven had to market himself, and he did it in ways that are at once subtle and very bold. 
One thing is for certain. While the piece doesn’t match a symphony or concerto or anything in its performance forces, the structure here, the content, the ground covered, and the sheer musical integrity of what’s presented… means it is just as valid, just as substantial a work as any of the other ‘larger-scale’ things I have focused on up to this point. Beethoven dropped the mic with the piano trio. That is a slightly overwhelming thought… Beethoven wrote nine symphonies and only one opera. Those are arguably his ‘biggest works.’ But when you’re dealing with such musical genius, the string quartets, quintets, trios, and solo works are all of equal ‘bigness’ in expression and integrity. It means there’s a ton of music I still have to digest from this, one of the greatest of musical minds. 
What a joy to hear this piece over and over again. This will be a piece I return to for continued enjoyment. We’ll see you tomorrow for the next in this op. 1 set, and it too has something to say. 
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