Chopin Piano Trio, op. 8

performed by Oistrakh/Knushevitsky/Oborin, or the Beaux Arts Trio, or anyone else

So… for whatever reason, this piece just does not resonate with me. I’ve really tried. I’ve done my homework, I know it’s a common piece in the repertoire. I thought for a while it was just the poor quality of a famous (quite old) recording I was listening to, but nope. It’s just not something I’ve been captivated by really at all. However, I will say that, as with the piano sonata, there are moments I enjoy from the work, but on the whole, this is an article of obligation rather than passion. And I really don’t know why.
The Beethoven piano trios from a week or more ago really blew me away, not with power or force, but a kind of stunning, effortless beauty. And we know listening to early Beethoven that this is him just getting started.
I don’t mean to compare the op. 4 and 8, because the piano sonata is generally considered to be perhaps the composer’s least successful work, or at least one of them, and I know this trio isn’t as neglected, but to be honest, I feel much the same way about both of them, before, mind you, having done some research that makes some parallels between the works.
The trio was started in 1829, but set aside for some reason and not finished and premiered until a year later in 1830. The piece is dedicated to the same man for whom the op. 3 cello piece was written to be performed, one Antoni Radziwiłł, but the reasons for this piece were different than either the opus 3 or 4, and in fact exactly the same as op 2: it was homework. And we’ll get to it later, but to me, it sounds like homework.
Perhaps I’m missing something.
Chopin’s only trio, like the Beethoven trios, is laid out in four movements, in the exact same order as the piano sonata: sonata movement, scherzo (minuet in the sonata), slow movement, finale.
The first movement again… rather fails to present itself as a strong, delineated sort of clean-cut sonata form movement. It has a development section with its different keys and themes kind of all over the place, but nothing I could follow by ear, and in reading about the piece, it seems there isn’t a really good candidate for an actual second theme in the sonata-allegro sense. There is an answer to
the opening statement, and some other ideas that present themselves, but nothing that really fills those second-subject-shoes. That’s fine. I used the word ‘fail’ above, but that is not to say the movement is a failure. I am not suggesting that Chopin was incapable of writing within the confines of a sonata form, but it seems the idea, at least for now was to him cumbersome or annoying. There’s some nice material in the first movement, but for some reason, despite the G minor melancholy and somewhat stirring opening, this movement just does not grip me. It should though, and I can see how it should, but it doesn’t.
The second movement is quite delightful. It’s marked as a scherzo, but for the most part is a very polite, charming, happy affair. Where the first movement was melancholy and even mildly pained or lost or longing, this movement invites the listener to come back, sit and relax, enjoy. Perhaps it’s the interaction among the instruments that makes it so pleasant. Where the violin perhaps took the forefront in the darker, more agitated first movement, the piano is the real foundation of this movement, and is still politely present even when it lets the other two members take over. I am happy that we’ve dispensed with the melancholy and agitation of the first movement for a sunnier spell here. There is a contrasting minor-key passage that hints at the previously introduced and emphasized themes, and it is very short, but is effective enough to make the return of those themes seem fresh before it ends suddenly. I feel this is far simpler, more straightforward and charming trio writing.
The third movement, the adagio sostenuto, begins warmly, but as soon as the piano enters with its lyrical melody, I kind of wish the violin and cello weren’t there. The poor cello. For such a beautiful instrument, it’s not given a whole lot of time in the spotlight for this piece, but we hear a bit more of it in this movement, and while there’s nothing I can say that’s really wrong with this movement, there just feels to be nothing especially right about it either. Really.
The final movement is hands down the best thing in this piece. If this were just an allegretto for piano trio, this movement would be wonderful. It feels like the most balanced writing for the ensemble as a whole, and the most interesting. My first thought upon hearing it was ‘gypsy’ or something folksy, but ‘Polish’ is the better word. It isn’t overcomplicated, it’s endearing, and all three instruments have more of a chance to shine. This opening melody is the only one from this piece that latched on to me, that I found humming or playing through in my head every now and then. That’s about as positive as I’ll be about the piece.
But I feel better about not being the only one that feels this piece sounds about as inspired as my chemistry homework. Here are some excerpts of the review/sentiments of the piece written by Jeremy Nichols in 2010 for Hyperion. It’s only one little paragraph, but I don’t want to paste the whole thing here. Go read it, but the salient points are that the work “is Chopin’s only example of writing for the violin, and it shows a surprising lack of flair (in the first movement, for instance, the violinist rarely moves out of first position).” He also states that “there is little of the interplay between the three instruments of the kind that makes the trios of Beethoven, Schubert and Hummel such a delight. Chopin seems hampered by the confines of classical procedures, working ideas through dutifully rather than with individuality and imagination,” while acknowledging that some performers seem quite taken with the work. I would agree strongly with Nichols’ sentiments.
The first movement is marked mostly by the aforementioned violin, with lyrical background shimmeries by the piano, with the cello only rarely heard prominently, and this leaves less than a warm impression with me. While the Beethoven trios were luscious and interesting from the start and made me want to listen through, I’m a bit impatient with this piece from the get go; it feels like it wanders, and the melancholy I find unconvincing. The second and fourth movements are the saving grace of this piece, but it just isn’t one of my favorites at all. I don’t like it.
Chopin had some homework to get out of the way, I understand, to write a chamber piece or an orchestral piece (the op. 2 is fine!), but his real magic is when he is alone, unencumbered by accompaniment or other complications. Something far more favorite of mine tomorrow.

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