Toivo Kuula: Piano Trio, op. 7

performed by Kreeta-Julia Heikkilä, violin; Tuomas Lehto, cello; Roope Gröndahl, piano

(cover image by Cassie Boca)

Toivo Timoteus Kuula was born on July 7, 1883 in Vaasa, on the west coast of Finland. He studied privately with Sibelius from 1906-1908, and was his first student. He died in 1918, 18 days after being shot (accidentally?) on Walpurgis Night. He spent at least some time in Paris, and was an assistant conductor at the Helsinki Orchestral Society, I think along with his friend Leevi Madetoja, who we’ll talk about in a future post.

His output is made up largely of works for voice and/or chorus, including a Stabat Mater (incomplete, and later finished by his friend and colleague Leevi Madetoja), a large number of songs, some chamber works and an unfinished symphony.

The piano trio we’ll discuss today was completed in 1910, and is quite a hefty work, lasting over 50 minutes in its four movements, as follows:

  1. Moderato assai
  2. Scherzo
  3. Andante Elegiaco
  4. Finale

I know I gushed over the Fuchs quartet from last weekend, and I’ll do the same with this piece. The only thing that makes it less accessible or more challenging or whatever is that it’s long. There aren’t many chamber works that come this close to the one-hour mark, especially not by such obscure composers, but if you have some time to cozy up to some new music, and really love Brahms (and who are we kidding? who doesn’t?), then get comfortable and let this piece take you away for about an hour. It’s got tons of depth, and to really appreciate it, you might want to take a few listens. Even at only one pass, though, you will be able to appreciate Kuula’s masterful (and quite early) work.

The first movement is nothing short of epically Brahmsian. It’s a 19-minute movement that, while expansive, orbits around what becomes familiar musical material. One might find it unnecessarily long, but it’s expressive throughout, from tender, sweet musical lines to more blustery passages, at turns nostalgic, or funereal, but Kuula manages to keep it all pretty together. In its contrasts, broad scope, and exquisite presentation, this by itself would be a satisfying work as a single-movement sonata for the trio, perhaps so much so that we might finish the quiet bars of the first movement wondering if the rest is really necessary.

The scherzo that follows does not impress me as deeply but is certainly a fine movement as well, the shortest of the bunch, and what shines in this six-and-a-half minute movement is the central trio of the movement, very nocturne-like, conjuring up images of Chopin instead of the Brahms I’ve been thinking of up to this point. The scherzo returns to finish off the movement.

Immediately, the antante elegiaco marking for this movement seems fitting, if not a bit too cheerful sounding. One almost expects something along the lines of Chopin’s famous funeral march to begin, but once the strings join, it is clearly not a march, but very somber. It appears that it’s this softer, more soulful, moving writing that is Kuula’s strength. The movement is practically static at times, where piano has disappeared and the strings play in unison, like heavy sighs in a stiflingly quiet room. But when the piano returns, it takes center stage and brightens the spirits ever so slightly, from a cripplingly somber affair to something more passionately longing. This is exquisite writing, if not a bit dense in passages, but things cool off with a central cello solo. This is music you can’t help but be drawn into.

The finale is quietly dance-like in its first subject; Edition Silvertrust quotes Wilhelm Altmann in saying that it “has the character of a tarantella.” It reaches a passage that sounds as if it might be quoting back to the third movement, before the passage to which I assume Altmann is referring when he speaks of the second subject being “rather march-like.” That is not how I personally would describe it, but it has something of a heavier step.

The final movement wraps up with a rich, almost heavy-handed gesture, I suppose suitable for this grand work. If you finished the first movement, you have an idea of this work overall, how encompassing and richly, vividly Romantic it is, the ground it covers, and how, to me, at least here, Kuula’s strength is in emotive, passionately lyrical moments rather than driving, masculine crunchy ones, but there’s a strong handsomeness about this work overall that makes it sumptuously (yes, I know, J.G.), fantastically enjoyable for anyone with a thirst for really decadent Romantic-era music.

And it sounds very little like Sibelius, with whom he’d already ended his studies by the time this work was completed. Or maybe it does. In any case, we’ll be seeing another of Sibelius’s students make an appearance next week, so please do stay tuned for that and thank you very much for reading.

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