Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his two Piano Trios in 1923 and 1944 respectively. The works are diametrically opposed in almost every way.
The Piano Trio No. 1 Op. 8 is one of Shostakovich’s true early works (written when he was just 17!) and is filled with the romanticism and passion of the composer’s first amorous encounter. This short, one-movement piece contains many features characteristic of Shostakovich’s later works, such as snatches of humour, agitated piano passages, persistent chordal passages and sometimes uncomfortable dissonances but these give way to two extended melodies juxtaposing lyricism and exasperated anticipation, usually introduced by the cello before being taken up by the violin.
Little of this romantic vigour remains in the Piano Trio No.2 Op. 67, a product not of love, but of war. The listener needs only to compare the opening bars of the two works to hear the contrast: the full sound of the cello in the first is markedly different from the fragile and barely audible introduction, played by the cello in harmonics, to the second trio. It would be difficult for a stringed instrument to produce a thinner sound.
This sets the tone for the music to come, in which Shostakovich moves from one extreme to another. The restraint of the opening canon is in stark contrast with the ensuing macabre dance that is both frivolous and disturbing. A similar tension is created between the other two movements. The third movement opens with a powerful series of chords presented by the piano. This is then used as a passacaglia on which Shostakovich displays his facility for writing sustained melodies. In the final movement, the drama reaches a climax, with seemingly innocent popular melodies taking on an apocalyptic form. The frenzy only comes to a close with the return of the piano’s immense chords, this time taking a more unsettled form. The work leaves a haunting void in its wake; an emptiness that Shostakovich himself experienced when one of his most versatile and brilliant friends, Ivan Sollertinsky, passed away while the trio was being composed. It is to Sollertinsky that the trio is dedicated, making this masterpiece almost a requiem.
The atmosphere created in the two Prokofiev pieces presented here is more in keeping with that of Shostakovich’s Trio No. 1. This is definitely true in the case of the Ballade for Cello and Piano Op. 15, one of Prokofiev’s early works. It was written in 1912, when the composer was 21. This one-movement work also has a poetic French title (Shostakovich’s Trio No. 1 was originally entitled Poème), and this immediately gives a narrative element to the music, even if it is not explicit. As is often the case in ballades, the music transports the listener from one atmosphere to the next, punctuating the journey with repeated melodic motifs. A sombre atmosphere prevails in this ballade. The cello’s long, demanding lines, though sometimes lyrical, often have a sense of urgency, especially when they descend into the instrument’s lower registers. The piano occupies a prominent place throughout the work, and although it is sometimes in dialogue with the cello, it is more often responsible for setting the atmosphere. The piano part is often dense and strained, and its numerous obstinate rhythmic elements create a continuous tension under the cello’s long notes. It is as if the piano is painting a nocturnal picture out of which the protagonist emerges, slowly and hesitantly.
The Five Melodies for Violin and Piano Op. 35 (1925) is an unusual work. The piece was originally written in 1920 for piano and voice without words, using the title ‘Songs without Words’ in its strictest sense. It is precisely this absence of text that makes these pieces so easily adaptable to other instruments. Prokofiev himself arranged a version for violin, at the request of Pavel Kockansky, to whom he dedicated three of the five melodies. The composer took the opportunity to explore the full range of the instrument’s sonic possibilities. He transposed the melody to a range that the voice does not usually reach, sometimes even extending to the tessiture of flutes or flageolets. As well as this, he arranged passages in double stops and pizzicato. At times, the original melody takes a more virtuosic direction, even if the general tone remains lyrical. The version for violin has rapidly become the more widely played version of this piece, given the versatility and variety of its solo part. The absence of text is less noticeable in this arrangement, but this does not at all limit the listener's imagination.
translation: Moya Gorman