Leonore Piano Trio, 29 October 2015

Programme notes

Piano Trio No 3 in A minor, Op 26: Edouard Lalo (1823-1892)

1. Allegro appassionato
2. Presto
3. Très lent
4. Allegro molto


Born in Lille, north-east France, Lalo was encouraged by his parents to study violin and cello at the Conservatoire there. But when he began to show a more serious interest in music, his father’s opposition prompted him to leave home at sixteen and move to Paris, where he continued to study violin at the Conservatoire, and composition privately.

He made a living as a violinist and teacher, and played in some of Berlioz's concerts. Cultivating an interest in chamber music, not generally fashionable in Paris at the time, he composed two piano trios and a string quartet, and played in a quartet dedicated to gaining wider recognition for the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, among others.

Following his marriage to a contralto in 1865 he began work on his first opera, Fiesque, whose failure either to win a competition or attract interest from opera houses in Paris and Brussels was a major disappointment. His second opera, Le Roi d'Ys, based on a Breton legend, seemed at first to suffer the same fate. But when it was eventually staged in Paris in 1888 it was a huge success and Lalo was able to enjoy a more prominent reputation during the last four years of his life.

The third of his three piano trios dates from 1879, nearly thirty years after the first two, and was an immediate success at its premiere in Paris, in March 1881. This was promoted by the Société Nationale de Musique, founded by Saint-Saëns and others in 1870 with the express intention of fostering an interest in serious instrumental music, felt to be under-appreciated by French musicians and audiences. Lalo was one of many composers who were to benefit from the society’s activities.

A brief attention-grabbing introduction leads to the relaxed, almost wistful first main theme, which is presented as a dialogue between the violin and cello. A strenuous linking passage leads to the more restless second theme, which takes a long time to settle into a firmly established key. The movement continues to explore these expressive areas of calm and turbulence, ending with a short, slower section drawing the music to a gentle close.

The second movement took on an independent existence when Lalo orchestrated it, in 1884, as his Scherzo in D minor. This, too, thrives on contrast, between driving energy of an almost Brahmsian insistence, and music of greater delicacy. The central trio section, though more gentle, maintains the momentum, until the opening music returns. The ending is blunt and concise.

A solemn tread, almost like a funeral march, underpins the third movement. From its quiet, sustained opening, the music moves steadily through an increasingly powerful series of climaxes. But a turn from F minor to E major proves to be a transition, bringing a lyrical new theme for the piano. Apart from one last flare-up, the movement ends peacefully.

Lalo asks for the finale’s opening theme to be played very rhythmically. Its exuberance is thrown into relief by the more lyrical music that follows soon after, for which the pace eases slightly, before picking up again. After a passage remarkable for its lightness and delicacy, there is a change of key to the F minor in which the third movement began; the mood, though, is energetic and sturdy rather than tragic. The return to E major brings more alternation between the robust and the airy, before Lalo signs off with an exuberant flourish.

Piano Trio in E flat, Op 1, No 1: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

1. Allegro
2. Adagio cantabile
3. Scherzo. Allegro assai
4. Finale. Presto

In 1792, Beethoven left his native Bonn for Vienna, first to study with Haydn, and then to establish himself as a pianist and composer. Two years later he began work on the three piano trios published as his Op 1, though some of the material, especially of No 1, is thought to date from before his move. Haydn was, at that time, working on the last of his own piano trios, but Beethoven’s surpass those of his teacher in two major respects. Haydn’s trios have only three movements; Beethoven’s have the four-movement design normally reserved for the weightier forms of the string quartet and the symphony (which he seemed, for the time being, to be deliberately avoiding). Also, Beethoven gave the cello a greater degree of independence from the keyboard bass, placing the three instruments on a more equal footing. In 1796, Beethoven was to write his two sonatas for cello and piano, his Op 5, the first important sonatas for this combination.

The E flat trio has a relaxed, outgoing quality, which, in the finale, becomes positively playful. The crisp opening theme is based on a rapid ascending arpeggio figure, which gives the music much of its energy. The smoother second theme has only a limited role in the middle part of the movement. Instead it is used to launch the long concluding coda, an early example of a characteristic feature which would appear in many of Beethoven’s later works.

The adagio is a rondo with a somewhat Mozartian main theme, the generally tranquil flow ruffled by two episodes, both of which feature duets for the violin and cello. The first is amiable, with the piano adding a delicate commentary. Following the return of the rondo theme, the minor-key second episode is more melancholy, building to an impassioned climax. The rondo theme then brings the movement to a hushed close.

It is followed by a quick, playful scherzo which takes a few bars to settle into its main key. The trio section is quiet, calmer and slightly mysterious, and the reprise of the movement’s opening is followed by a brief coda in which Beethoven, with a wry smile, simply allows the music to run gently out of steam.

The finale is full of the kind of bubbly high spirits that suggest Haydn’s influence. A brief moment of turbulence is soon shrugged off, and there’s a moment of genuine comedy later, when the music hesitates for a while before slipping off into the wrong key, only to be forcibly dragged back again a few moments later.


© Mike Wheeler, 2015