From the opening bars of Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1, we are swept into a drama filled with soaring passion and turbulence. An expansive and restless melody emerges in the violin’s darkest register. It rises and falls, propelled by swift, ever-changing arpeggiating currents in the piano. Downbeats and phrase endings vanish amid swirling canonic counterpoint between the violin and the piano’s bass register. After reaching heroic and euphoric heights, the music falls back into a sudden tender intimacy. Schumann gave this feverish movement the expressive marking, “with energy and passion.” One of the most extraordinary moments comes in the middle of the development section when, suddenly, all of the motion stops. A transcendent new bell-like theme emerges in the piano’s shimmering, highest register, accompanied by ghostly whispers in the violin and cello which play sul ponticello (bowing close to the bridge).
The second movement is an exuberant scherzo. The musical voices embark on a lively game of imitation as a theme dominated by zesty dotted rhythms is echoed cheerful. The game continues in the quieter trio section. Here, the lines become rising and falling waves on a calm sea.
The third movement is a soulful dialogue between the violin and cello. At first solemn and lamenting, this hushed nocturnal conversation wanders unpredictably, alternating between passion and pathos. In the final moments, the melancholy opening theme takes the form of a chorale in the piano while the violin and cello fade gradually into the shadows.
The desolate final bars of the third movement lead directly into the sunshine of the final movement. It begins as a celebratory hymn of gratitude, a kind of quiet “Ode to Joy.” In a way similar to a rondo, we move through a series of wide-ranging musical adventures. Schumann’s expressive marking, “with fire,” seems to apply mostly to the coda section which builds steadily in excitement and momentum. The final bars surge to an exhilarating conclusion.
Schumann composed the D minor Piano Trio in a single burst of creative energy during the summer of 1847. The piece was written in two weeks. This 2011 recording features Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Christian Tetzlaff (violin), and Tanja Tetzlaff (cello):
I. Mit Energie und Leidenschaft:
II. Lebhaft, doch nicht zu rasch:
III. Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung:
IV. Mit Feuer:
Five Great Recordings
- Schumann: Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op.63, Leif Ove Andsnes, Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff Amazon
- André Previn, Kyung Wha Chung, and Paul Tortelier
- Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan, Mstislav Rostropovich
- Beaux Arts Trio (Menahem Pressler, Isidore Cohen, Bernard Greenhouse)
- Trio Wanderer (Vincent Coq, Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, Raphaël Pidoux)
Featured Image: “Felsenriff am Meeresstrand” (1824), Caspar David Friedrich