Beethoven String Trio no. 4 in D, op. 9 no. 2

performed by the Zurich String Trio, or below by Perlman, Zukerman, and Harrell

This trio is the second in a series of three works that make up the opus no. 9, the first of which we discussed yesterday. This set is for good reason generally regarded as an outstanding accomplishment, one of the composer’s greatest up to that point (and beyond, according to many). Although we won’t yet be speaking about the final work in this opus number, I will go ahead and say I find the second of these three trios the least charming work of the set, but that may just be because, as we shall see, it’s just a bit more reserved, in my opinion. However, to say it’s inferior to the other two (and that’s not really what I’m saying) is not to say it’s bad, because this is all wonderfully-written music, no question.

This trio, like its counterparts, is in four movements, one of the things that makes it a more ‘serious’ work, unlike the serenade or divertimento works that came before it. The first movement begins with an allegretto theme first uttered by violin that, while pleasant, is abrupt in the way it begins, as if we’ve missed the first few bars. It doesn’t particularly capture my heart, but leads to a more lively second theme where the other members of the trio reach equal footing, but this bouncier, quirky subject doesn’t excite me much either. These finally lead to what Robert Cummings at AllMusic calls “A third theme, of a more restrained character, (marked dolce),” which enters to round out the exposition. This third theme is short enough that I’d consider it maybe just a closing statement, except for the fact that the development uses it as well as the previous two subjects, and it’s here that the movement shines.

You can hear it all in there, similar enough to be identifiable, but different enough to be interesting. The way these ideas are mixed and reintroduced is more interesting than whatever simple charms they may have had on their own at the beginning, in my opinion. Who am I to be critical of Beethoven though? Wait for the cello to be singing in its highest voice, and you’ll be just about at the recapitulation, after which there is a coda.

Cummings describes the second movement as “rather playful,” but I find it more melancholy than playful, like a (bitter)sweetly (?) sentimental serenade. There is some pizzicato to give texture and delicacy to the sound here and there, but his use of only these three instruments to provide such texture and a fullness of sound is impressive. This movement is not very long one, a sort of ternary form, again with a coda, ending in the minor key.

In contrast with that is what I find to be the most charming movement of the work yet, a minuet marked Allegro. It’s not an action-packed movement (minuet, not scherzo), still lighter in atmosphere, and still with some shades of melancholy, but bouncier and more simply charming than everything so far. I particularly like the two-note rhythm in the trio as it moves from player to player.

The theme that begins the rondo finale, marked allegro, is also not one of immediate breathtaking charm, repeated twice by the cello, but it develops as the rest of the ensemble picks it up. There’s another theme that enters, barely more lyrical than the first, before that reappears, and again the real magic of this movement is in the development rather than in the inherent charms of the subjects themselves, I feel.

This strikes me as a piece more of subtlety than outright charm or theatrics. It stays quite within the bounds of a relatively quiet kind of inside voice; it doesn’t bring us to tears, and there are no explosions of fury or gasps at beauty. Rarely do we get exciting or even just… slightly louder outbursts, and even in the finale, we don’t have any runaway virtuosic passages that knock our socks off. It has all the parts of a serious work, the four-movement form, sonata structure, etc., but its spirit I think is much more subdued, more mellow.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, sure. It’s mighty pleasant, but I suppose it doesn’t stand out among his works as one that really excites me. But then again, they can’t all excite in the exact same way, can they? That would be exhausting, kind of the typecasting of classical music, so… yeah, I’m fine with this. Perhaps more critically, I don’t feel, as I do with many of the composer’s other works, that this is one that has untold secrets to tell and gems to be discovered.

With many of the composer’s other works, especially the sonatas we discussed last week, I feel that there’s immense possibility for discovery, expression, questions to answer, but with this work (as I sort of felt with the op. 3 and op. 8), I feel it might not have the kind of infinite depth that some of the others do, but again, that’s okay. This whole paragraph was one sentence until now.

We actually won’t be discussing the third work in this opus number for now, which kind of irritates me on an organizational level, but we don’t have time for it. We’ll get there eventually, but now we’re going to jump ahead a bit and get back to piano stuff for a while. Please stay tuned and thank you so much for reading.

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