In the dedication of his Opus 9, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) referred to the three string trios as “the finest of his works.” Requisite puffery aside, Beethoven had reason to believe that they were his strongest compositions up to that point. He appeared to treat the genre of the string trio as the testing ground for his later work in the string quartet. As a result, these last trios—written in 1797 and 1798—have much in common with his first set of string quartets, long considered staples of chamber music repertoire. The String Trio No. 3 in G major, Op. 9, no. 1 begins with a broad Adagio introduction; the three instruments unfurl the opening gesture together in octaves. The violin proceeds with a graceful gesture, urged on by the other instruments, who then repeat the phrase themselves. The violin uses this gesture to segue into the spirited Allegro con brio. Runs pass freely between the three instruments, then come to a halt for an understated march theme. The movement explores the interactions of these musical ideas, with the segue gesture returning to usher in the harmonically surprising conclusion.
The violin takes the lead in the Adagio, ma non tanto, e cantabile, presenting a gently pulsing melody that soon becomes a tragic aria. The viola and cello echo phrases of the melody, and the violin steers the trio through several different emotions. The cello briefly takes center stage with a steady stream of notes, but the violin reassumes control. The carefree Scherzo dances nimbly, but the contrasting Trio section is less sure-footed as its tromping line stops and starts, requiring the Scherzo to step in again to move things forward. The breakneck Presto proceeds like a moto perpetuo, with a flurry of notes, but suddenly the violin and viola break free with a soaring, arching line. When they launch their flight a second time, the cello unleashes a barrage of arpeggios, driving the movement ever forward to a delightful ending.
Early in his career, Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) had every indication that he would eventually join the ranks of the greatest composers. A child prodigy born in Prague, Schulhoff caught the attention of Antonín Dvořák, who encouraged him to become a musician. Schulhoff studied piano and composition in Prague, Vienna, Paris, Leipzig, and Cologne, studying with the greatest teachers (among them Claude Debussy) and winning prestigious awards. He drew inspiration from disparate styles of Russian Romanticism, jazz, German Expressionism, Dadaism, and Neoclassicism, fusing them to create his idiosyncratic style. Unfortunately, his career suffered from forces beyond his control. As a Jewish composer, his works were deemed “degenerate” and subsequently banned by the Nazi regime. When the Nazis occupied Prague, Schulhoff sought and received citizenship from the Soviet Union, but he was arrested before he could emigrate. Schulhoff died in a concentration camp in Bavaria a little over a year later.
Schulhoff composed his Duo for Violin and Viola in 1925, dedicating it to fellow Czech composer Leos Janácek, whom he admired. The Moderato is in a rondo form, with a theme recurring throughout the movement. The violin begins, and the cello offers counterpoint; their musical language is initially modal, evoking simple folk melodies, but it soon becomes chromatic. The rhythms likewise become more complex and “Modern.” The movement features several extended string techniques, such as left-handed pizzicato—allowing the musicians to play bowed and plucked notes in quick succession or even simultaneously—and harmonics, in which the players lightly touch the strings to create whistling tones. Schulhoff uses this expanded palette to explore a variety of effects, but the folk-like rondo theme grounds the movement. The Zingaresca: Allegro giocoso refers to the so-called “Hungarian”/”Gypsy” styles, as the cello pounds out a beat and the violin bursts into a fiddle tune. They swap roles throughout the energetic movement, with the cello occasionally ringing out the melody as the violin keeps pulse with slapping chords. Both instruments adopt mutes for the Andantino, veiling their tone as they exchange phrases of the haunting melody, each supporting the other with a delicate string of pizzicato. The Moderato finale calls back to the opening movement by echoing its rondo theme before crafting it into something new, with more urgency driving toward the wild conclusion.
Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) belonged to the generation of Russian composers after the “Mighty Five” brought Nationalism to the forefront of Russian music but before Modernism took hold. In fact, Glazunov had tangible ties to both worlds: as a teenager, he studied privately with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and as the director of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, he taught Dmitri Shostakovich. His musical style is rooted in Russian Romanticism, as is evident in his String Quintet in A major, Op. 39. Composed in 1891, the quintet features two cellos instead of the more conventional doubling of the viola, creating a darker, richer sound. The sole viola begins the Allegro with a lilting melody, but each instrument has the opportunity to carry the tune as the rest of the ensemble provides lush harmonic support. The first cello emerges with a contrasting theme, a stately yet soaring line placed in the cello’s upper register. The movement showcases Glazunov’s talent for counterpoint as he weaves together five parts without relegating any one to an accompanimental role for too long, culminating in a forceful conclusion. The Scherzo: Allegro Moderato begins with the viola playing a drone, over which the two violins exchange playful pizzicato phrases. The cellos join in the fun, keeping the mood light, and the quintet settles into a chipper march pattern. For the contrasting Trio passage, the march trudges as the cellos pluck out plodding chords and the upper strings’ meandering lines intertwine. Once again, the viola holds onto a drone, and Glazunov evokes Russian folk styles with a fiddle melody over a mournful, sighing accompaniment. The cheery pizzicato scherzo returns, but the folk-like sounds reappear just before the end of the movement. The second cello initiates the Andante sostenuto with a rhapsodic solo that serves as the introduction; the first violin presents the passionate theme of the movement, and the first cello responds in kind. Suddenly, the mood brightens as the first cello rolls merrily along, but the heavy sentiment of the opening ultimately overtakes the movement. The Allegro moderato finale begins like a feisty Russian folk dance, but Glazunov reveals a more sophisticated plan when the viola initiates a fugue based on the rustic melody. As the other instruments enter one by one, the texture becomes thick and complicated. Suddenly, everything falls into place for an idyllic Più tranquillo passage before the dance takes off. Again, Glazunov shows off his technique by shifting the emphasis of the meter while maintaining the boisterous momentum, concluding in triumph.