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Centaur CRC 2718
Recorded
June 2, 3, 7, & 8, 2004
Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church
Silver Spring, Maryland
Centaur Records

Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949)
Mendelssohn Piano Trio


Ya-Ting Chang, piano
Peter Sirotin, violin
Fiona Thompson, cello
Michael Stepniak, viola


Piano Trio in A Major, No. 1

    I.   Allegro moderato
    II.  Adagio
    III. Menuetto. Allegretto
    IV. Allegro vivace
Piano Trio in D Major, No. 2
    I.   Allegro moderato
    II.  Andante cantabile ma non troppo
    III. Scherzo, Allegro assai
    IV. Finale, Lento assai - Allegro vivace
Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 13

    I.   Allegro
    II.  Scherzo - Presto
    III. Andante
    IV. Finale - Vivace

     

 

THE YOUNG RICHARD STRAUSS Born: June 11, 1864, Munich Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen Born the son of an accomplished horn player in the Munich court orchestra, Richard Strauss could not help being involved in music from a very early age. His father Franz had lost his first wife and their children to illness, but then by a stroke of good fortune, he "married up" in a second marriage that enhanced his social standing and also provided him with financial freedom. At the age of 41 he took as his second bride Josephine Pschorr, a sensitive young woman 16 years his junior, daughter of a wealthy Munich brewer. Two children were born to this union, Richard (in 1864) and Johanna (in 1867); both children grew up in a privileged and protected environment.

Young Richard began to play the piano at the age of 4 ½, the violin at the age of 8. His violin teacher was Benno Walter, his father's cousin and leader of the court orchestra. At the age of 6, he was composing instrumental pieces and songs. His wise parents insisted that their son enjoy a broad general education, so Richard attended Ludwig's Gymnasium in Munich, where he read widely and enjoyed sports and games as well as Alpine holidays. But music became his real youthful passion. He was taken to concerts and operas from an early age. By the age of 11, he was writing orchestral scores, and the court conductor began teaching him theory. Richard's father, however, had intensely conservative musical tastes (he played Wagner magnificently, we are told, while detesting both the man and his music!), and he endeavored to pass them along to his musically gifted offspring. Thus Richard heard nothing but the classics until he was in his teens-Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. In the words of his sister Johanna, "father was inexorable and wanted to give him a firm grounding." This, then, is the background against which the youthful works recorded here came into existence. These are no "lost masterpieces," but they do provide a fascinating glimpse of a prominent composer in his early experimental stages of development.

One of the Strauss family customs was to gather together for regular family chamber music performances in various family homes, such as that of Anton Knözinger, Josephine Strauss's brother-in-law, a gifted amateur cellist. He was the dedicatee of Strauss's Piano Trio No. 1 in A Major (Op. 15), composed in a few days during an illness that confined the 13-year-old composer to his bed with a recurrent chest infection. According to Duncan Reid, in his extensive notes for the only other compact disc recording of the trio, this teenage composition is "shamelessly based on Mozartian models, with a dash of early Beethoven." The opening Allegro moderato seems more tuneful than inspired, featuring a sparkling, optimistic first subject, followed by a development that proceeds with great freedom, culminating in dramatic chords for all three instruments in unison. The second movement, an Adagio, is a soulful, lyrical "song without words" that leads imperceptibly into a Menuetto, marked Allegretto, with a gentle trio that recalls a Schubert Ländler, or country-dance. It may have been a later addition to the completed work. The finale, a rondo-variation marked Allegro vivace, may recall the delight young Richard took in his first exposure to Mozart's comic hero Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, which he had first seen several years earlier. The catchy tune alternates with pizzicato strings that joyfully recall the "magic chime" episodes in the Mozart opera.

The youthful composer was now playing regular chamber music with his cousins and uncles in family recitals. The Piano Trio No. 2 in D Major (Op. 11) is dedicated to another of his mother's brothers, Georg Pschorr, and dates from early 1878, when its composer was 14 years of age. This trio indicates how quickly Richard Strauss was maturing. Influences of Schumann and also Mendelssohn are inescapable, but the transitions are handled much better, and this is obviously a richer and more ambitious work. The opening Allegro develops its theme with a modulatory freedom and features dramatic chords for all three instruments in unison. After a questioning start in the solo piano, the second movement, an Andante cantabile ma non troppo, continues as a rhapsodic "song without words" that features the violin in a recapitulation of the original melody, flanked by daring harmonic twists. The third movement is a Scherzo marked Allegro assai, much in the spirit of Mendelssohn, complete with a delicate elfin-like trio. The solemn chords of the Finale, marked Allegro vivace, are part of an elaborate game, as a carefree, lilting theme soon emerges, alternating with a calmer lyrical song. This is by far the longest movement in both piano trios, and suspicions are aroused that perhaps the composer simply wanted to show off his own maturing keyboard technique.

After graduating from the Ludwig's Gymnasium in 1882, Strauss entered the University of Munich, in accord with his father's wishes. But he lasted only one winter, setting out instead for the more stimulating musical environments of Dresden and Berlin. It was in Berlin that he fell under the influence of the pianist and conductor von Bülow, and during this time the young composer developed a keen interest in the music of Johannes Brahms. The influence of Brahms is most evident in the Piano Quartet in C minor (Op. 13), which was begun in the spring of 1884. Letters to a childhood friend, Ludwig Thuille, and to his family reveal that the quartet itself is modeled on the Brahms piano quartets. The Brahmsian influence is most evident in the first movement, an Allegro, with unison opening passage, rich instrumentation and sonata form. Here we find the glorious rhythmical and harmonic turns, but also wistful moments, which sound like the more familiar later Strauss compositions. The second movement, a Scherzo, marked Presto, again shows the influence of Brahms, both in its form and in its displaced rhythms. One critic detects the influences behind some of the orchestration of Strauss's later tone poems. The rich melody of the trio, full of Viennese influences, is held over a 40-bar pedal in the bass, until the opening theme returns, to end with a final flourish. The Andante is the emotional core of the work, also similar to the slow movements in the Brahms piano quartets. The Vivace finale brings together elements form the three preceding movements. Opening with the first theme of the Allegro, Strauss draws on some of the harmonic ideas from the Scherzo, with the descending sixteenth figures from the Andante, and weaves them together in a complex contrapuntal pattern. Quick scale passages on the piano lead to a rousing conclusion.

The piano quartet won a first prize of 300 German Marks for the young composer in a competition organized by the Berlin Tonkünstlerverein. It was first performed in Weimar on December 8, 1885, by Strauss himself and members of a Halir Quartet. Duke Georg of Meiningen, to whom the work was dedicated "in respect and gratitude," responded in kind by thanking the composer, telling him that "your achievements here have thoroughly cured me of my previous erroneous belief that your youth made you unfitted as yet to be the sole director of my orchestra." The fact that Strauss was still performing the quartet in 1921 on his American tour indicates that he took some pride in this work. Later, on the occasion of his own 82nd birthday, Strauss was honored with an honorary doctorate of law in the Alpine resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The town's municipal authority, together with the Bavarian government, sponsored a town hall concert to mark the occasion, with the conductor Georg Solti as pianist in a performance of Strauss's early violin sonata and the piano quartet. Strauss himself concluded the festive occasion by speaking movingly of his early days in Munich.

Louis J. Reith

©  by Mendelssohn Piano Trio since Dec. 1999
Last Update: September 8, 2017