Embracing the middle way

Our March program opens in C minor with the great Beethoven String Trio and ends in the triumphant E-flat major of Robert Schumann’s noble Piano Quartet. Along the way we meet three of the Eight Pieces for clarinet, viola and piano by Max Bruch—which place the two lyrical middle voices of their respective wind and string families in direct contact. Also on the program is the sprightly collection of dances distilled and arranged by Stravinsky from his larger L’Histoire du soldat, that cautionary tale about bargaining with the Devil and getting in the end more than you bargained for.

The String Trio in C minor, Op. 9 No. 3 is Beethoven’s last work for this medium and predates his writing for string quartet (the six of Opus 18 being the earliest). It is comprised of the four movements found typically in a Classical quartet—Fast, Slow, Scherzo and Trio, Faster. Without the extra violin each player is busier trying to fill out the middle texture, the alto and tenor voices, that achieve the balanced sound and allow any single instrument at times to soar above a solid triadic foundation in a quartet. All parts end up playing more notes—as double stop—to make up for the missing middle.

In addition to writing Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, Max Bruch also wrote a major work for the two “solo” instruments with orchestra. Placing the two middle voices in direct contact was Mozart’s idea in his beautiful Kegelstadt Trio. Mozart was able to exploit more differences between the two than Bruch, who treats them as affectionate friends rather than rivals. (The rivalry, over which might best play the two exquisite Brahms Sonatas, the Clarinet Trio and Quintet, comes later.)

The Suite from L’Histoire du soldat was arranged by Stravinsky himself for violin, clarinet and piano probably to gain more exposure for some of his most popular music. In its original form it requires nine players and three actors including a percussion batterie. Rather than converging mostly around a common middle range, the instruments move freely throughout every register and emotion, from solemn to sassy, making up for all the other “missing” parts with virtuosity.

After intermission the Schumann Piano Quartet brings together the three strings with piano. Considered one of the greatest and most tuneful masterpieces of the medium, the  quartet shares with the rest of his chamber music for strings and piano a characteristic scoring of many of his string parts within the same register as the piano part often doubling many of the inner parts in the keyboard writing. For any chamber player used to being the sole owner of a particular line, hearing it played simultaneously by another player or within the piano part imposes limits to be negotiated. In Schumann’s scoring, the doubling provides a unique and special color that suggests how closely he viewed the  sound of the strings as emanating from and extending the range of his piano.


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