Beethoven’s Bacchanalian indolence

Dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, youngest son of Emperor Leopold II and Maria Louisa of Spain, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97, was completed in 1811. After two hundred years, it still haunts the musical imagination.

MalfattiIn the summer of 1810 Beethoven began sketching what was destined to be his finest piano trio – and the last. Earlier that year, he had harboured thoughts of marriage to Therese Malfatti (pictured left), daughter of a wealthy Viennese merchant. Beethoven may have written his famous bagatelle Für Elise for her. The original manuscript was lost and all we have is a transcription by the music scholar Ludwig Nohl, who said that the manuscript was dated 27 April 1810. Musicologists speculate that the correct title was Für Therese.

When his hopes of marriage to Therese were dashed, Beethoven went to Baden where he sketched ideas for a string quartet and a piano trio. Back in Vienna in 1811, he wrote out the quartet – the striking Op. 95, “Serioso” – and completed the piano trio. The “Archduke” Trio comes between the Sixth and Seventh symphonies and after the composition of the Fifth piano concerto, the “Emperor”, also dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph. The Trio is, therefore, a work of Beethoven’s maturity as a composer.

It was with the “Archduke” Trio that Beethoven bid a reluctant farewell to performing in public at a charity concert in 1814 in Vienna. Beethoven was joined by violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and cellist Joseph Linke. It was Schuppanzigh who in 1808 founded the Razumovsky Quartet and gave the first performances of many of Beethoven’s quartets.

The violinist and composer Louis Spohr attended a rehearsal of the 1814 performance and wrote:

“On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate.”

Structured in four movements, rather than three as was more customary for chamber works, the “Archduke” Trio both in concept and length is a symphony for three musicians. Its first movement is a grand sonata form in which the piano takes the lead. Melodies often begin in the piano before moving to one or other of the strings for elaboration. The second movement is a carefree scherzo in which the strings begin a dancelike motif that only belatedly moves to the piano. Its middle section is more darkly dramatic, before the return of the playful opening theme.

The Andante has an inward-looking serenity, whose poetry may well have been inspired by Beethoven’s infatuation with Therese Malfatti. An ingenious transition moves its elegant final variation from the tranquil key of D major to the bustling home key of B-flat, proceeding without pause to the finale, which the British musicologist Donald Francis Tovey described as “a marvellous study in Bacchanalian indolence.”

Borodin-QuartetOne of the great recordings of the “Archduke” Trio is that of the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter with members of the Borodin Quartet. It took place on 7 December 1992 during the December Nights Festival (founded by Richter in 1981) and held at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The concert was also filmed by Russian TV.

Other notable recordings include: Alfred Cortot with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals (1927); Artur Rubinstein with Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuerman (1941); Solomon with Henry Holst and Anthony Pini (1943); Daniel Barenboim with Pinchas Zukerman and Jacqueline Du Pré (1970); and the one some reckon to be the very best, the Beaux Arts Trio (1990). And yet the Russian recording is persuasive in every way: and it’s Richter.

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