Brahms Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, op. 87

You have not so far had such a beautiful trio from me and very probably have not published one to match it in the last ten years.

Brahms, to his publisher

When he began the second of his three piano trios in the summer of 1880, Brahms was going through a period of notable change. After the triumph of his first two symphonies, Brahms was gaining international recognition and becoming financially successful. He was getting used to the idea of continuing his career as a composer and less as a piano virtuoso. His chamber works during this time, which also included his first violin sonata and the F major string quartet, reflected his optimistic mood and confident artistry. Uncharacteristically, he seemed really pleased with the second piano trio, and said as much to his publisher.

Actually, during that summer, Brahms began work simultaneously on two new piano trios. Ever the perfectionist, he eventually abandoned one of them, but completed the other in 1882. In December, the trio was published and premiered in Frankfurt-am-Main at a chamber music evening.

He came a long way since his first trio in B major, composed over a quarter century earlier. One big feature of this trio is its economy, where earlier accompaniment becomes thematic material as the piece develops. The two strings are also treated as a unit, doubling each other in octaves or thirds, to counterbalance the piano. In fact, each movement starts with the strings doubled at the octave.

The opening Allegro of the trio provides a large wealth of thematic material to reveal the trio’s character. The first subject played by the strings is broad, sweeping, and in 3/4 time, when it is interrupted by the piano playing in 2/4 time. The piano’s chromatic response to the strings is developed into the second theme. A grazioso closing theme in dotted rhythm rounds out the exposition. The slow movement is a set of variations on a melancholy theme in A minor. The theme, employing an idiosyncractic “Scotch snap” rhythm, shows Brahms’ continued fascination with the Hungarian gypsy style. The scherzo’s mysterious and ethereal character is offset by a warm and soaring trio section. The piece concludes with a jovial rondo.

As it so happens, the C major trio was not a favorite of Clara Schumann’s. Between the two piano trios he started, she preferred the one he eventually discarded. She felt the shadowy second theme in the first movement was too introverted and thought he should use longer notes. The trio’s third movement was “not quite important enough and seems rather manufactured.” Brahms didn’t change it.

Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, op. 67

I cannot express in words all the grief I felt when I received the news of the death of Ivan… He was my closest friend. I owe all my education to him. It will be unbelievably hard for me to live without him.

Shostakovich, to Sollertinsky’s widow

Composed in the summer of 1944, Shostakovich wrote the trio in memory of one of his closest friends, Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died the February before. The tribute is not wholly lachrymose, but the bereavement is palpable in the first movement’s elegiac introduction and the third movement’s somberness.

This sadness extended beyond his friend’s death: around this time, Shostakovich received grim reports about the massacres performed by the Nazis, and was horrified by stories that SS guards had made their victims dance beside their own graves. Though Shostakovich never indicated a program to the piece, many listeners at the premiere heard a direct realization of those stories, especially in the fourth movement, where its metrically-regular dance rhythms, pizzicatti, strummed chords, and fiddling effects, adopts a Jewish folk idiom, and its opening theme takes on a Jewish character.

The striking opening of the trio begins with a six-measure idea, introduced by solo cello, muted and in harmonics. It is followed in canon by the violin and then the piano in low bass. The material develops and increases in tempo. The lean textures keep the instruments exposed, and the movement concludes in bitterness. That pain lashes out to a brash sarcasm in the second movement, a frenzied, breathless scherzo. Sollertinsky’s sister felt this movement best described her deceased sibling: “that is his temper, his polemics, his manner of speech, his habit of returning to the same thought, developing it.”

The slow third movement is written in chaconne form, where the strings weep and interweave with each other over a repeated series of chords introduced by the piano. When it concludes the piano goes right into the finale, the longest movement of the trio. Over repeated piano notes the violin plucks a dance tune, and Shostakovich’s characteristic frenzy ensues. After the dance escalates to its climax, the piano releases the energy in a series of rapid arpeggios, whereupon the first movement introduction reappears. The dance tune also returns, and then, in a telling moment, the chaconne chords of the third movement appear ghost-like. The strings whisper the finale’s dance motif as a distant echo. Then the work settles with quiet string pizzicato chords over a sustained E major chord in the piano.

Rostislav Dubinsky was for many years the first violinist of the Borodin String Quartet, and he premiered the piece with Shostakovich at piano. At the premiere Dubinsky described what happened: “The music left a devastating impression; people cried openly. The last, the Jewish part, of the trio had to be repeated by popular acclaim. An embarrassed, nervous Shostakovich repeatedly came onto the stage and bowed awkwardly… After the first performance, it was forbidden to play the trio. Nobody was surprised. The Trio not only expressed music; something else was there, as if it were a truthful interpretation of our reality.”

More Concerts