Otto Malling: Piano trio in Am, op. 36

performed by Elisabeth Zeuthen Schneider, Amalie Malling & Morten Zeuthen

(sorry, no video today… but here’s the album [with audio samples] or from iTunes, the score, and the parts for sale)

Otto Valdemar Malling was born on 1 June, 1848 in Copenhagen (we’ll be hearing a lot of that, I think). He was a student of both Gade and Hartmann (and that) and seems to have been successful mostly as a performer on and composer for the organ, but also wrote some symphonic stuff, a piano concerto I enjoyed a listen to, a symphony, and a concertante piece for violin and orchestra, but today is one of his few chamber works, the piano trio, dating from 1890.

His brother Jørgen Malling was apparently also a composer and music teacher, and the Danish Wikipedia article says that the Cm piano concerto is likely O. Malling’s most famous orchestral work. It’s on the same album as this trio, and you’ll notice one Amalie Malling as a performer, but I’m not sure if she’s related.

The piano trio is in four movements, totaling about 23 minutes of playing time. It’s a real gem. The work is neither too long nor too heavy, but outstandingly musical. It shimmers almost nonstop. It’s the kind of work that seems to have content enough for a work much longer than it is, but a great deal of charm would be lost in the process.

The first movement opens with a nostalgic expression from violin, but it’s not somber; we’re in A minor, but it quickly sounds tender and not dark or melancholy. There’s a breathtaking lyricism that sparkles and shines, even in the quieter, more subdued corners of this movement. The music is just so damn charming, but not cheaply so. There’s a deep sense of expert lyricism, an intense expressiveness that never overwhelms; it’s just perfect. Malling’s writing for the piano when it stands alone is also beautiful. The first movement takes up about a third of the playing time, and is by far the longest movement. It’s just chock full of joys and gems, but beyond each individual line or note is a whole movement that charms and welcomes and shines with an expert musicality. I really love this.

The second movement, an intermezzo, is only slightly shorter than the two movements it precedes. It serves as the scherzo, sort of, with a slight bounce in its stride, potentially one of the most charming, simple things I’ve ever heard. And I should clarify that when I say ‘charming’, I don’t mean “oh, isn’t that cute?” but “this is simply, sweetly, deeply beautiful in a way I can’t describe.” The writing for the trio is transparent, with interaction between the instruments, either building (or ‘feeding’) off of one another, or responding to one another. It’s delicate, balanced, quaint, and brings a brightness to the work.

The third movement, in contrast, is a notturno, beginning with cello. It’s full of a more outright lyricism, at which Malling is clearly also adept. It’s more pensive, with longer stretches of solo cello, to which the entire trio respond. It ends quietly, and reinforces the minor-key atmosphere of the work.

The finale is marked presto, but it’s not garish or overdone. As we’ve heard (you should go buy the album, methinks), Malling’s work here is marked by an artistic restraint, never outlandish or terribly heart-on-sleeve. It’s tasteful and balanced, even in this most spirited of the movements. It, too, has its quiet, soft moments, which make for some of the highest tension in the whole movement. It’s a fitting finale to a well-crafted chamber work marked by charm, supreme musicality, that I can only imagine is as enjoyable for the audience to hear as it must be fulfilling for the musicians to perform. There’s not a note out of place, a piece with its strength in a mature, balanced subtlety, dispensing its charms and magic in just enough proportion that we always want just a morsel more.

It’s works like this, I think… while it doesn’t grip you by the soul and change your life or challenge your world view, strikes me as just one of the greatest things I’ve heard in a very long time, and sure, it doesn’t come from a far more famous pen like that of Brahms or Mendelssohn, Schubert, etc., but it’s just an outstanding piece of music, balanced, mature, well constructed, lacking just about nothing. Sometimes we don’t need music that makes us weep or question our existence or gets our hearts pounding. We just need exquisitely meaningful beauty, and by golly, Otto Malling has it in spades. Stay tuned for more wonderful Danish music next week. Jeg smutter igen.

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