Music Note:
The Piano Trio Concerto
7 October 2019

¶ In the Times, over the weekend, there appeared a review of Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall that dismissed one of Beethoven’s violin romances and his Triple Concerto with the following: 

Neither is often performed; neither really deserves to be, either.

It is going to be a while before I forget this judgment when I encounter Joshua Barone’s byline. The romance (Romance in No 1 in G), like its fraternal twin (No 2 in F) is an outdoor-concert treat that, perhaps, nobody ought to be paying to hear a virtuoso of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s caliber to play. The concerto is quite another matter altogether. The secret to appreciating this work, which has given commentators so much trouble, is to rename it: the Piano Trio Concerto. It is a showpiece not for three instruments, but for only one. Already in Beethoven’s day, the piano, the piano trio was one of the most popular groupings, and to me it has always seemed Beethoven’s happiest, the most congenial. The violin and the cello formed a unit that would last (in tea rooms and resorts, at least) into the Postwar era. It constitutes the smallest possible reduction of the symphony orchestra, and much of the music written for it wavers on its own frontier between the chamber and the concert hall. Beethoven’s first publication was a collection of Piano Trios: they could be expected to sell. 

Of course, the Beethoven of the piano trios is not the Beethoven of the more famous concert pieces that, elsewhere in his review, Mr Barone bewails as “over-programmed.” By his curious logic, Beethoven is out because he’s overdone, while the Triple Concerto is out because it’s never done. The idea that the concerto might offer fresh insights into a fresher, happier composer, less burdened by guilt, unrequited love, deafness and destiny doesn’t appear to have crossed his mind. If indeed it is not performed more often, that is precisely because it is written for the very rare piano trio (often ad hoc) capable of playing with collegial bravura. 

You could say that Beethoven applies the concepts of the sonata form too severely to the Triple Concerto: everything must naturally be heard three times. Instead of complaining, though, you could say that Beethoven is letting it rip.

Whatever the critics think, this work has an effect on audiences that can only be called “rousing.” 

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