Inside Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio

Jeremy Nicholas
Thursday, May 5, 2016

Jeremy Nicholas talks to Trio Con Brio Copenhagen about one of the finest of all piano trios

‘Personally I think it is one of the greatest pieces for this combination because of both the scope and the content.’ So says Jens Elvekjaer, pianist of the Trio Con Brio Copenhagen. Many would agree while admitting the irony of the composer resolutely refusing to write for the genre. ‘Forgive me, dear friend,’ he wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck in November 1880. ‘I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me…I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend.’ It’s a refusal that’s all the more puzzling because the second movement of the Piano Concerto No 2, completed only a few months earlier, is essentially a piano trio.

The Second Piano Concerto was, significantly, dedicated to Nikolai Rubinstein. Before he could premiere the work – and just four months after Tchaikovsky’s letter to Mme von Meck – Rubinstein died. Despite periods of estrangement, the loss to Tchaikovsky of his teacher, mentor and longtime friend left him bereft. It is against this background that the Piano Trio in A minor, Op 50 was conceived and composed. Completed in January 1882, Tchaikovsky dedicated the work ‘In Memory of a Great Artist’.

The Copenhagen Trio started playing the work in 2004. Since then they reckon to have performed it nearly 100 times. ‘It’s a milestone of the repertoire, one of a kind,’ says Soo-Kyung Hong, the South Korean cellist, wife of Jens Elvekjaer and sister of the Trio’s violinist Soo-Jin Hong. ‘Yes,’ agrees Elvekjaer. ‘And it’s also interesting to see the influence the Tchaikovsky Trio has had on succeeding generations of Russian composers like Rachmaninov and Shostakovich. I think it was the first piano trio to have this form.’

The form is indeed unique: two movements, the first (Pezzo elegiaco: Moderato assai) in sonata form, the second (Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto) a set of variations (2A) on a folk-like theme (Rubinstein loved genuine folksongs) with the last variation set apart from the rest (Variazione Finale e Coda: Allegro risoluto e con fuoco) and cast as a sonata movement of its own (2B). Explains Elvekjaer: ‘You have the first part of the second movement [2A] in the dominant key and the last part [2B] in the tonic of A minor. So you have, in a simple way, that tension between the tonic and dominant … it just takes 50 minutes! If you are able to convey this tension then you don’t have the feeling as a player or listener that it is so long. You feel a connection from the first note to the last as though it’s in one movement. That’s something that develops over time when you perform it. You have this journey and, by the end, you feel that somehow you have arrived.’

I ask Elvekjaer what the biggest challenges are in playing what is arguably Tchaikovsky’s most demanding score in terms of technique and stamina. ‘Ninety pages is a lot!’ the Danish pianist agrees. ‘In the first movement, the piano is playing continuously and a lot of the time the writing is quite tricky but – and this is something that comes with a lot of performances – you eventually feel more on top of it and you learn how to “plan your powers”! But it’s not just demanding in the virtuosic sense because in the variations movement it’s a fascinating challenge to realise the colouration that Tchaikovsky asks for.’

Soo-Kyung chips in: ‘As a cellist I can say that in this piece and the Ravel Trio – which we also play a lot – it’s the balance that’s really tricky. The writing is so symphonic in places. The beginning, for example, is no problem because of the register – it’s just piano and cello – but there are many places where the cello just doesn’t get heard, where it needs to be extremely concentrated and focused. There are some concert halls where, because of the acoustic, the violinist goes out front to listen to how much output I should give.’

This is the cue for her sister Soo-Jin to join the conversation. ‘For the start of the piece I’m often the one who goes out to listen, and then we switch round. This makes a lot of sense because we trust each others’ ears. But you ask about the difficulty of each part. Well, the violin part is not like the Violin Concerto but there are similar places which are very tricky. The most demanding part is to find the right colour and sound for each theme. For instance, the opening theme of the Pezzo elegiaco mustn’t be too intense so that there is a contrast when it returns at the end of the second movement. If it’s too heavy, it can get very tiring for the players and the listeners. We try and plan the journey from the very first note.’

Many trios decide to make the cuts sanctioned by Tchaikovsky in the second movement. Some, though not the Copenhagen Trio, omit the Fugue (Var 8). Most common is the cut of 136 bars in the Variazione Finale e Coda just eight bars from the top (0'16" – pages 67 to 78 in the Peters Edition used here or pages 86 to 100 in the Jurgenson Edition). ‘It’s basically a repeat of the same material,’ says Jens Elvekjaer. ‘For instance, the octave theme on the piano (page 70) in E major returns on page 80, 14 bars before fig H. The movement all but starts again on page 77. We feel that at this point in the performance with nothing new happening – and I know there are people who believe we’ve sinned! – I don’t see that you gain a lot from playing it twice. The second movement is so rich in material that to abbreviate the finale, to return to the concluding A minor section sooner, makes it much stronger. The key point is on page 84 when you finally break off from the major key in the second bar (marked ff legato) and go into the grief-stricken final pages.’

As Soo-Kyung observes ‘The funeral march is heard [page 91, Lugubre] over the cello and then, for the violin entry, Tchaikovsky has written piangendo – “crying”. You can’t just come in and play this last page straight off. When we recorded it, we first did two complete play-throughs of the entire last movement and we ended up using the ending from one of these complete takes.

‘Yes,’ her sister confirms. ‘Whenever we play the last bit people say afterwards, “How can you still stand?” It’s like running a marathon. It does demand great stamina but no matter how tired you are by the end, you still have to give 200 per cent of yourself.’

The historical view

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Letter to Nadezhda von Meck 

(January 25, 1882) 

‘I can say with some conviction that my work is not all bad...but I fear I may have arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for the instruments.’ 

George Bernard Shaw – The Farnham, Haslemere and Hindhead Herald

(December 17, 1898)

‘Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor exhibits all the qualities which have made its composer so popular now that he is dead, and we have had plenty of time to think about it.’ 

Eduard Hanslick – Am Ende des Jahrhunderts, Berlin (1899) after the Vienna premiere of the Trio

‘When the trio was played for the first time, the faces of the listeners expressed the wish it should be the last. It belongs to the category of suicidal compositions, which kill themselves by their merciless length.’ 

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This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Gramophone. To find out about our various subscription options, visit:

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