Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
After the string quartet, the most prominent ensemble in the chamber music repertoire is the piano trio comprising the intimate but powerful combination of piano, cello and violin. Haydn established the genre with numerous outstanding trios, inaugurating a tradition that has engaged nearly every notable composer from Mozart to such contemporaries as John Harbison and Bright Sheng. Never to be outdone, Beethoven wrote six major piano trios beginning with the set of three he deemed worthy enough to claim his first published opus number. Between the Op. 1 piano trios and the three masterpieces of his maturity, Beethoven wrote his charming piano trio, Op. 11, originally scored for clarinet, cello and piano but also published, with little modification, in a transcription for the typical ensemble featuring the violin as the treble instrument. Both versions enjoy the concert stage, but tonight, it appears in the novel permutation of piano, oboe and bassoon.
The trio is an early work, composed in 1798 just before Beethoven turned his attention to his first set of string quartets. Many have pointed out that the Op. 11 piano trio is atypical of Beethoven. Accurate descriptions employ adjectives that one does not necessarily associate with the most familiar of his music: gentle, lyrical, playful, even, “light”. The reactions of his contemporaries range from describing the work as “easy” and “more melodious” to “difficult” and “unnaturally composed”. Most now share the opinion that it is wonderful music, especially when it is allowed to speak for itself. Still, it provides a curious exercise for the listener: if you didn’t know it was Beethoven, would you know it was Beethoven?