Listening to Beethoven #50 – Piano Trio in E flat major Op.1/1


View of coffee house in Praterallee, Vienna (1810, thought to be by Joseph Koll)

written by Ben Hogwood

Piano Trio in E flat major Op.1 no.1 for piano, violin and cello (1792-94, Beethoven aged 23)

Dedication Prince Charles Lichnowsky
Duration 32′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Opus 1 was an extremely important milestone in the life of Beethoven. With it he was determined to make a statement, particularly as a newcomer to Vienna – and the pieces behind that statement were subject to a great deal of care and revision before publication. He chose the medium of the piano trio very deliberately, opting for a form that Haydn and Mozart had not dominated, and where there was room for development and innovation.

The second and third trios were begun in 1793, soon after arrival in Vienna, but the first in E flat major is thought to have been started in Bonn prior to that. All three were completed for Prince Lichnowksy, at whose home they were first heard in 1794. It is thought Haydn – now Beethoven’s teacher – heard each of the three pieces before he left for London. There were some reservations about the third work, of which more when that piece is the focus, but the first two were warmly received.

Beethoven’s innovations for Op.1 are set around a recalibration of the piano trio format, giving the three instruments – piano, cello and violin – greater equality. Until now Haydn had used the piano as a dominating instrument with stringed accompaniment, but in the slow movement of the first trio in E flat major Beethoven sides more with Mozart, giving the strings more prominence and greater freedom of expression.

He also changed the structure of the trio, expanding it from three to four movements, thinking along a more symphonic line. The ‘new’ movement would be a Minuet or Scherzo (a quicker movement laced with humour and energy), the structure similar also to string quartets of the time.

Praise for the first trio in the set is uniform. Richard Wigmore, writing in his notes for the Florestan Trio recording on Hyperion, enjoys the ‘luxuriant’ second movement, ‘with a first episode fashioned as a soulful love duet for violin and cello’. The third movement is ‘the first of Beethoven’s true scherzi’…which ‘ leaves its minuet model far in the background’. Meanwhile the finale ‘suggests Haydn in its verve and brilliance, and in the witty capital Beethoven makes of the initial leaping figure’.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s first ‘official’ published statement is in the key of E flat major, his ninth work to date to occupy that key. It is where he feels most at home, and, if the opening melody is anything to go by, it is a place where he can use the simplest of melodies as the basis for a whole movement. The second theme of the first movement is a nice, tender contrast, but both provide plenty of material for the composer to develop, which he does with a smile on his face. This is wonderfully open, airy music, which would have projected far beyond the small confines of the room in which it was first performed.

The slow movement has a songlike appearance (hence its Italian tempo marking Adagio cantabile) and provides a meaningful contrast, with music of real depth. The colours of piano with the stringed instruments’ greater involvement are beautifully shaded. The third movement has an appealing delicacy, again making much from what seems like very little material to construct an appealing dance form. There are some quite sudden interjections here, Beethoven’s ever changing musical moods beginning to surface on a regular basis.

The composer may use an unlikely melody from which to hang the finale, but Beethoven makes it work, taking the unconventional leap at the start of the melody and pushing the music forward with plenty of sparkle and wit. This is music to be enjoyed, though it comes at a price for the performers!

The sound has really filled out compared to Beethoven’s first unpublished essays in the form, with much more body to the strings but also greater technical demands on the pianist, no doubt to impress the Viennese audience and to ensure the pieces were not copied. In an enclosed, private space it would have made an extremely strong impression with its bright colours and heartfelt melodic statements.

Recordings used

Castle Trio (Lambert Orkis (piano), Marilyn McDonald (violin), Kenneth Slowik (cello) (Warner Classics)
Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello) (Hyperion)
Beaux Arts Trio (Menahem Pressler (piano), Daniel Guilet (violin), Bernard Greenhouse (cello) (Philips, 1964 recording)
Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

The fortepiano can be a bit too probing in its timbre but there is a really pleasing zip and enthusiasm in the Castle Trio’s performance, further energising the music. Occasionally the fortissimo playing can over-egg the pudding, but generally the balance is good.

The Florestan Trio present a beautifully weighted account, which works firstly because of the dexterity of Susan Tomes, under whom every note has meaning but always with the strings in mind. The Minuet has an appealing delicacy, while the finale really gets airborne at a terrific pace.

Spotify links

The playlist below compiles the recordings made by the Castle Trio, Beaux Arts Trio and the Szeryng-Fournier-Kempff trio:

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1794 Haydn Symphony no.100 in G major ‘Military’

Next up Piano trio in G major Op.1 no.2

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