Tchaikovsky composed his only piano trio to honour his longtime friend and mentor, pianist Nikolai Rubinstein…the same man who harshly criticised his piano concerto. But that cloud over their friendship was a temporary one, and Tchaikovsky was deeply upset to hear of Rubinstein’s untimely passing in Paris at the age of 45, and gave this trio the subtitle ‘to the memory of a great artist’.
Ironically it was actually Tchaikovsky’s elusive patron, Nadezhda von Meck, who planted the idea of composing a work for her resident trio the year before, in 1880. The form that had been a mainstay of composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was not popular in Russia, and Tchaikovsky put von Meck off by claiming the combination of strings and piano had ‘no tonal blend’, and that the piano could only be used in three scenarios: “alone, in contest with the orchestra, or as accompaniment in the background of a picture”.
He may have also resisted the idea out of jealousy of von Meck’s star house pianist, who he may have seen as a rival for her support, the teenage Claude Debussy.
But with the idea planted, Tchaikovsky imagined a virtuosic piano work with the scale of a symphony. The piece opens with a Pezzo elegiaco, a brooding if standard opening movement, though with an unusual funeral march at the close. Then we have the second movement, which takes up the majority of the trio as a massive set of theme of variations that builds to its virtuosic heights, giving the piano many opportunities to dazzle, before a sudden return to the opening elegy, given far more weight, leaving us with the funeral march and reminding us of the loss of the great artist.
Performed by Levansa Trio: Andrew Beer (vln), Lev Sivkov (cello), Sarah Watkins (pno) during Sunday Concerts at St. Andrew's on The Terrace, Wellington 31 July 2022. Presented by Wellington Chamber Music Trust, and recorded and produced by David Houston for RNZ Concert.