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In an illuminating metaphor, Eugene Istomin has said of the components of the Beethoven trios that "the other instruments are his friends, his relatives, his beloveds, but the piano is Beethoven himself." This is, paradoxically, even more true of the works of Beethoven's later life when deafness all but forbade public performance, for in these works the composer was fulfilling an abstract evolution on paper that might never have been performed in the concert hall.
The first evidence in the trios of this "abstract evolution" comes in the Op. 70 trios of 1808, written for one of his most perceptive patrons. Countess Marie von Erdody. Though the piano is not so all-pervasive as in the works of a decade or more before, it is now the strong spinal column of the body artistic, able to give as well as take. From it, as nervous epicenter, the stringed instruments exercise their own sovereign impulse.
The beautifully constructed first movement, with its interlaced voives, reaches fulfillment in a combination of what has begun as srparate themes. There is a similar duality in the largo assai e espressivo, for it is one part Beethoven, one part Schubert - that part of brooding introspection with its other-worldliness that has caused work to be called the "GeisterTrio" or "Ghost Trio."
Most amazing is Beethoven's ability to intensity the drama with which it begins, to make the last statement of the much-repeated motive as meaningful as the first. As there is no praclicable way in which a scherzo, minuet or other dance-derived piece could follow this slow movement, he proceeds directly to the Finale. It comes like dawn after a dark night, a renewal of faith, in a statement of regeneration and recommittment.
The "Archduke" Trio marks the peak of Beethoven's writing for violin, cello and piano. It is dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria, the musically gifted son of the Emperor Leopold II. Rudolph not only studied piano and theorv with Beethoven from the time he was sixteen, but also became Beethoven's friend and benefactor. In addition, he maintained a fine library into which Beethoven deposited manuscript copies of each of his new compositions.
As far as posterity is concerned, this Iibrary became an invaluable repository of musical masterpices.
The trio №6 in B-flal Major. Op 97. vvas completed at the end of March 1811, but it took more than three years before its first performance in the Hotel zum Romischen Kaiser in Vienna on April 11, 1814.
The occasion was a noontime concert, arranged In the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh for a military charity, and Beethoven himself played the piano part. Several weeks later the artists repeated the performance, which was to be the last time Beethoven appeared as a performer of chamber music, his deafness making further participation impossible.
As it was, the "Archduke" Trio could not have fared very well in Beethoven's hands. The composer Ludwig Spohr, who attended a rehearsal, reported that the piano was badly out ol tune, which Beethoven did not hear; that in loud passages he pounded the keys until the strings jangled, and in the softer ones played so lightly that whole groups of notes were omitted, rendering the music unintelligible.
There is a heroic sweep and grandeur about this Trio that places it in a class by itself. At times, it breaks the intimate bounds of chamber music and assumes concertlike qualities: in fact, one hears echoes, especially in the first movement, of both the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos. This is music for a trio of virtuosi.
The work opens with a noble Allegro moderato, which brings to mind, in addition to the two Piano Concertos, the first movement of the Quartet in F Major. Op. 59. №1. Both in spirit and rhythm, the second movement of the Trio recalls that of the Quartet, though the constrasting middle section of this movement, with its chromatic main theme, is more a forward glance toward Brahms.
A note of serenity marks the slow movement. Andante cantabile ma poto con molo, a stately theme with live variations. The last variation, longer and more fully developed than the others, makes a few surprise excursions into other keys before leading directly into the final Allegro moderato, a spirited rondo with overtones of a peasant dance.