Pyotr [Peter] (Ilyich) [Il'yich] Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Nationality: Russian
Born: May 7, 1840, Kamsko-Votkinsk
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg (age 53)

Piano Trio in a minor, Op. 50

(for violin, cello and piano)
I. Pezzo elegiaco. Moderato assai - Allegro giusto
II. Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto - Variazioni finale e coda
Composed: 1882 (age 41-42)
Dedication: To the memory of a great artist [Nikolai Rubinstein]
Duration: 46 minutes (approximately)
9 recordings, 13 videos
Zuckerman, du Pré, Barenboim
Berezovksy, Repin, Yablonsky
Eastman Trio
Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Rubinstein
Kagen, Gutman, Richter
Kremer, Maisky, Argerich
Lundstrem Trio
Prunyi, Kelemen, Fenyő
Zagreb Festival
I. Pezzo elegiaco. Moderato assai - Allegro giusto (part 1)
Zagreb Festival
I. Pezzo elegiaco. Moderato assai - Allegro giusto (part 2)
Zagreb Festival
II. Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto - Variazioni finale e coda (part 1)
Zagreb Festival
II. Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto - Variazioni finale e coda (part 2)
Zagreb Festival
II. Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto - Variazioni finale e coda (part 3)

From Kai Christiansen:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893

Piano Trio in a minor, Op. 50, 1882

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky,The music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ranks among the most popular and beloved in the classical tradition. Known primarily for his orchestral and ballet music (as well as two favorite operas), he possessed a brilliant gift for winning lyricism, passionate expressivity, brilliant color and a blend of classic European sensibility with an unmistakable Russian character. Hardly a formalist, Tchaikovsky’s music seems to flow from instinct and inspiration that follows its own natural shape without worrying about precise classical schematics. All these traits characterize his small but quite worthy oeuvre for chamber music comprising three string quartets, a string sextet (Souvenir de Florence) and the epic Piano Trio in A minor. A truly one-of-a-kind work, the piano trio occupies its own unique niche apart from the standard repertoire of 19th century European trios. With its thick, rich textures, wonderful melodies, effulgent emotionality and novel form, it is perfectly characteristic of the composer, exactly what we would want Tchaikovsky to compose.

The idea for writing a piano trio came from Tchaikovsky’s generous and strange patron Nadezhda von Meck who stipulated that they never meet each other in person. She had retained a young Claude Debussy as a teacher and domestic music maker and was thrilled with a piano trio he penned while in her employ. She passed the suggestion to Tchaikovsky who reluctantly took the idea, waited for inspiration and subsequently produced a gigantic work, one of the longest piano trios in the repertoire. Tchaikovsky dedicated the trio “To the memory of a great artist”, referring to his friend and teacher Nicholas Rubinstein, the founder of the Moscow Conservatory whose death in 1881 consumed Tchaikovsky with grief. It has been said that the central theme and variations programmatically describes memories of times they spent together, though Tchaikovsky denied this idea with tremendous sarcasm. But there are at least two important aspects of the trio that represent a tribute to Rubinstein. The piano part is virtuosic throughout, at times assuming important solos and occasionally resembling a chamber concerto. Rubinstein was a fabulous pianist and would likely have adored performing the trio. Second, the elegiac character of the work is unmistakable. The initial theme is drenched in despair and it recurs in the finale with greater force and the stark finality of the familiar funeral march.

The formal organization of Tchaikovsky’s trio is novel and entirely satisfying. It may be regarded as a two-movement work though the second movement comprises two labeled sections essentially making an overall ternary design. Titled Pezzo elegiaco (Elegiac Piece), the first movement is a sweeping narrative featuring three delicious themes in a long exposition that is repeated with some variation, an agitated coda and the feeling of improvisational development interpolated throughout. The second movement is a monumental series of eleven variations on an equally winning folk-like theme with the last section titled Variazione Finale e Coda providing a glorious, nearly orchestral apotheosis of the theme that segues into a power recurrence of the opening elegy and the subjugation of all light into dark grief. The variations are nothing short of brilliant. The variety of musical treatments and the stunning diversity of expressive character recall the genius of Tchaikovsky’s various orchestral suites demonstrating that his unbridled and seemingly endless inspiration works perfectly within a variation form with its simple constraints. Several commentators have provided an itemized description of the variations that is useful for its interesting highlights including a music box, a waltz with a different tune but the theme as a countermelody, an elaborate fugue, a salon-style mazurka, a delicate lament and a voluminous symphonic final variation.

In the manner of most elegies, the trio beings with sorrow, drifts into a sparkling, nostalgic memory of the departed while still alive, then awakens to the present state of grief deepened by the recall of what was lost. Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s trio published in 1882 established what would become a tradition of Russian elegiac trios including those by Rachmaninoff, Arensky and Shostakovich.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.