By Colin Kaye
Beethoven around 1810.
“When shall we three meet again?” is, you may recall, the first line spoken in
the Scottish play (for I dare not utter its name). It begins - somewhat
unusually - with three people saying goodbye to each other, but the significance
of the number three cannot have been lost on Shakespeare.
Apart from its religious significance, Pythagoras regarded the number three as
“the noblest of all digits.” Western harmony is built on groups of three notes
known as triads; in every key there are three major chords and three minor ones.
Many works are cast in three movements and ensembles of three instruments are
popular with composers. Haydn for example, wrote forty-five piano trios. I keep
the set of CDs in the car, because with a total of ten hours playing time,
there’s more than enough to help me endure the worst traffic jams that Bangkok
has to offer.
A piano trio is not, as some people might logically assume, music for three
pianos. Although it can be a work for piano and two other instruments, it’s
nearly always for piano, violin and cello. Mozart wrote over twenty of them,
Beethoven wrote thirteen and the obscure but prolific Carl Gottlieb Reissiger
found time for twenty-three.
You might be wondering how this combination of instruments came about, so I
shall tell you. But I’ll keep it short because I can sense your eyes glazing
over already. Although its origins can be traced back to the Baroque, the
emergence of the piano trio coincided, not entirely surprisingly, with the
invention of the piano. Before then, people had to make do with the harpsichord,
an instrument unflatteringly described by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham as
sounding like “skeletons copulating on a tin roof.”
At around the same time that the piano appeared, there was an increasing
interest in home music-making and a type of composition known as the
“accompanied sonata” became popular. In essence it was a piano sonata with
optional play-along parts for other instruments. A flute or violin played
more-or-less the same as the piano right-hand and the cello followed the bass
line. This was partly for commercial reasons because a single work could be sold
as a piano sonata, a violin sonata, or a trio.
Haydn’s early piano trios followed this same convention. But there was another
issue, because eighteenth century pianos were not very powerful. A richer and
more satisfying sound was produced by reinforcing the rather tinkly piano tone
with the violin and cello. In Haydn’s later works, the string parts gradually
took on more independent identities and some of his later piano trios – and
those of every composer since – are for three instruments of equal importance.
Haydn (1732-1809): Piano Trio in C major (Hob. XV:27). Trio Gaspard: Jonian Ilia
Kadesha (vln); Vashti Mimosa Hunter (vc); Hyo-Sun Lim (pno). (Duration 18:47;
Video: 1080p HD)
This joyful, splendidly tuneful three-movement work dates from the 1790s and has
a demanding piano part, particularly in the first and last movements. The video
was made at the International Joseph Joachim Chamber Music Competition at which
the Trio Gaspard won first prize. Hardly surprising too, because their
performance is outstanding. Their exuberant playing is infectious, the phrasing
is thoughtful, dynamics are carefully controlled and the articulation is
spot-on. The last movement is given a thrilling performance, although I could
have done with less theatre from the pianist.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2.
Ari Isaacman-Beck (vln); Gwen Krosnick (vc); Emely Phelps (pno). (Duration
30:02; Video 1080p HD)
Beethoven continued the piano trio style where Haydn left off, but this 1808
composition inhabits a very different sound world and unlike most of Haydn’s
trios, this has four movements. The string instruments are completely
independent and at times even dominate - a complete reversal of Haydn’s
By the early nineteenth century, pianos had a wider dynamic range, a larger
range of notes and better resonance than models built fifty years earlier -
absolutely right for Beethoven’s dramatic style of writing. This trio is full of
memorable tunes and the superb last movement (22:06) turns into a real
roller-coaster ride with sparkling playing from this talented young trio.
Oddly enough, the number three also reminded me of the story about Lord George
Brown, who in the late 1960s was Britain’s famously boozy Foreign Secretary (and
not to be confused with the other George Brown, who became Prime Minister). At a
diplomatic reception Lord Brown allegedly requested a dance with another guest
and received the imperious response, “I shall not dance with you for three
reasons. First, because you are drunk. Second, because this is not a waltz but
the Peruvian National Anthem. And third, because I am not a beautiful lady in
red; I am the Cardinal Bishop of Lima.”